HOPEWELL, N.J. — It's almost football season, and the Hopewell Valley High Bulldogs are hard at it, grunting and sweating through drills on a sun-scorched field in their glimmering new gold-and-black jerseys and helmets.
The team will soon go head-to-head with the Princeton High Tigers, the Lawrence High Cardinals, and its fiercest competition, a team called HOV.
That would be Honor Our Vote, a group of angry Hopewell Township taxpayers that is determined to kill off the first football team at the high school in 70 years. Saying the new team violates a school budget vote last year in which residents rejected football 2 to 1, the group has filed a formal complaint with a state judge asking him to shut down the Bulldogs.
The team was born this summer after a group of parents calling itself HIKE--Hopewell Involved in Kids Enrichment--raised $69,044 and received school board approval for the sport. HIKE says it will pay the full football budget for the first two seasons, 75% the third year and half the fourth year.
HOV responded with the legal complaint, touching off a battle as bruising as anything on the gridiron. Each side has fielded lawyers, Web sites, fund-raisers and a barrage of letters to the editor.
At issue is the fundamental purpose of public education in a nation where high school football is a cherished institution but where the interests of taxpayers often trump the most hallowed traditions.
The taxpayer group says the township can't afford football, which it says fosters an unhealthy jock culture, detracts from academics and girls' sports, and can cause serious injuries. A local newspaper has called the group "class snobs."
The parent group says it is unfair to deny the sport to boys who are desperate to play and eager to learn sportsmanship and teamwork at a school where the last varsity football team was snuffed out by the Depression in 1932. With more than 1,000 students, Hopewell Valley was the state's largest high school with no football team. Once a rural area near Princeton and Trenton, the township now is a growing, well-to-do suburb.
"It's kind of a snobby thing--they're afraid of a 'football mentality,' " said Kaye Yeisley, the mother of 6-foot-2, 240-pound James, 15, jersey No. 51 in your program, as she watched her son labor through practice.
"They can get pretty nasty, especially if you're not in that Hopewell clique," Cherie Stevulak, mother of Stephen, 14, jersey No. 35, said of the taxpayer group. "They think football players are dummies."
Mary Ellen Curtin, an HOV founder and the mother of two young girls in the school system, says the group has been unfairly characterized as mean-spirited and anti-egalitarian. She calls herself a "football atheist."
"It's more acceptable in American society to say you don't believe in God than to say you don't believe in football," Curtin said.
In a 10-page treatise she wrote for her group's Web site, Curtin listed her personal objections to football: It already has been voted down. It robs girls' sports of resources. It's dangerous. And it's too costly.
"I have a deep concern about football's effect on academics and its social aspects, where it can foment jocks-versus-geeks kinds of divisions," she said.
Caught in the middle is the school board. Board President Sally Turner said the April 2001 budget ballot, in which voters rejected football along with lacrosse and freshman softball, applied only to the 2001-02 school year.
"We have every legal right to do what we've done," she said. Asked why opponents want to kill a team paid for by private funds, Turner replied: "You'd have to ask them."
A 'Constitutional Issue'
Joseph Dutko, a retired cabinetmaker and co-founder of HOV, said even a privately funded football program eventually could cost taxpayers $300,000 to $400,000 for a new field, lights, bleachers, referees and so on. He called the dispute a "constitutional issue," saying the school board had thumbed its nose at voters.
"The board has violated the democratic process," said Dutko, who has put six children through the school system.
"I'm a World War II vet, and a lot of my buddies died fighting for democratic rights. Now an elected school board is denying those rights."
Dutko said he doesn't hate football. "I love the game. I watch pro football every Sunday," he said.
A New Jersey administrative law judge will rule on the HOV complaint, which was referred by the aptly named Bureau of Controversies and Disputes of the state education department. After hearing arguments by both sides, the judge will make a recommendation to the state's education commissioner.
"I wish they'd rule right now, because we haven't done anything wrong," said Kris Kley, treasurer of the parent group. "It's not like we're asking for a rifle club."
Kley, a mother of two grade-school boys, said her group is holding an auction and a carwash to raise more money.