2005-10-13 / Front Page
EBHS coach’s resignation sparks nationwide debate
Borden steps down after being told not to pray with his team
BY DOUG McKENZIE
Last week, it made its way to a football field in East Brunswick.
East Brunswick High School’s veteran football coach Marcus Borden resigned from his position after 23 years on Friday after being told by the district’s superintendent that he could no longer lead his team in prayer prior to its games.
Borden, who accumulated a record of 116-100-1, and whose team won last year’s Central Jersey Group IV championship, was not on the sidelines for the Bears’ game with Sayreville Friday night, sparking a controversy that has put the national spotlight on East Brunswick, as various news outlets, including ESPN, have converged on the town to cover the story.
But the controversy that led to Borden’s resignation actually started two weeks ago.
According to Patricia LaDuca, a spokeswoman for the district, Schools Superintendent Jo Ann Magistro started hearing rumblings on Sept. 29 about some concerns regarding Borden leading his team in prayer prior to every game.
“And not just from one source,” LaDuca said. “People from both sides of the issue were bringing this to Dr. Magistro’s attention. Students were even approaching staff members about it.”
Magistro acted quickly on the matter.
“As soon as she got the first inquiry about it, she immediately contacted Board of Education attorney Martin Pachman to find out what needed to be done,” LaDuca said. “She did her homework before she even contacted Marcus about it.”
It was a week before Pachman got back to Magistro, according to LaDuca, and when he did, he informed her that if indeed Borden was initiating a prayer with his players, he was doing so in direct violation of the guidelines set forth by the Supreme Court of the United States.
Those guidelines, federal laws designed to protect the separation of church and state in public schools, forbid representatives of the school district, whether it’s a teacher, coach, administrator or board member, from either initiating a prayer or participating in a student-initiated prayer. In other words, while students have a constitutional right to engage in prayer on school property, at school events and during the course of a school day, provided that the activity is truly student initiated, no representatives of the school district may constitutionally encourage, lead, initiate, mandate or otherwise coerce, directly or indirectly, student prayer at any time in the school-sponsored setting.
With this information as her motivation, Magistro went to East Brunswick High School on Friday to speak with Borden, a tenured Spanish teacher at the school, about the issue.
“Dr. Magistro met with Marcus while he was on cafeteria duty,” LaDuca said. “It was totally non-confrontational. There were no threats of disciplinary action or a request for a resignation or anything like that. Dr. Magistro just wanted to move forward from here.”
According to LaDuca, Borden admitted to initiating a prayer both at the team’s dinners before the games and in the locker room prior to the game. During the meeting, Pachman was on a speaker phone, and helped explain to Borden what he could and couldn’t do according to the law.
Following the meeting, Borden, who could not be reached for comment by press time despite repeated attempts, told Magistro that he needed to think about the issue.
“He gave no indication that he wouldn’t show up for the dinner or the game,” LaDuca said.
But that is exactly what he did. While the Bear players and coaching staff met for their team dinner at 3:30 p.m. that afternoon in the high school cafeteria, Borden was not among them. Assistant coach Glenn Pazinko was left in charge, and with no information regarding the guidelines earlier explained to Borden, did not lead the players in saying grace, as they were accustomed to doing each week.
This led to some misinformation, according to LaDuca, with some parents becoming outraged, claiming the players were told not to pray.
“The kids were standing there waiting for someone to lead them in prayer, when the coach told them to sit down and eat,” she said. “Nobody told them they couldn’t pray. In fact, before the game started, the players did pray.”
At 5:50 p.m., East Brunswick Athletic Director Frank Noppenberger received an e-mail from Borden in which he resigned his position as head coach. In that e-mail, the coach informed the longtime AD that his resignation was effective immediately, and was apologetic that it couldn’t wait until the end of the season.
Unfortunately, Noppenberger did not know about the e-mail until after the game, leaving the players and fans in the dark regarding Borden’s decision to resign. While Pazinko went on to lead the Bears during their 21-0 loss to Sayreville, Borden’s decision not to address his players before the game left many players confused and disappointed, according to LaDuca.
“I don’t think anybody anticipated that he was not going to come to the game,” she said.
On Saturday, about 50 members of the East Brunswick team met in the school’s parking lot, before heading to Borden’s house in South River, seeking an explanation. As the players stood in the pouring rain, chanting for their coach to return, Borden briefly spoke with team captains Mike Franchino and Dan Acciani, telling them that he was “a man of his word,” and that they needed to speak with the superintendent if they wanted anything changed.
Later in the day, Borden sent the two players an e-mail in which he thanked the community for its support, and implored the players not to make the wrong decisions (such as quitting the team) based on his beliefs and principles. He also expressed some remorse that the issue had escalated as quickly as it did.
Others, including Magistro, were not surprised with the reaction.
“It’s an unfortunate thing, but Dr. Magistro put a lot of thought into this because she knew it was a hot-button issue,” LaDuca said. “It’s just never been brought to her attention until now.”
One of the biggest concerns emerging from the debate deals with the way the students who initially voiced their concerns are being treated by Borden’s supporters. As a means of protecting those students, Dr. Magistro held a closed-door meeting with more than 300 players, cheerleaders and their parents on Monday, in which she explained her reason for approaching Borden, and also asked them to respect the feelings of everyone involved.
“We wanted to have the meeting so that everyone could have their say,” LaDuca said. “We wanted people to be able to speak their minds, with us listening to them, so that we can all get past this and move on.
“We also wanted to make sure everyone understood what constitutes prayer, which can be a tough thing to get people to understand. As Mr. Pachman explained it, prayer includes anytime someone invokes the blessing of a higher being.
“We hope that after [Monday] night, there won’t be an issue with the students who came forward,” LaDuca added. “Everyone is respecting Coach Borden’s principles, and these kids should be getting the same respect.”
Unfortunately, that has not been the case, as several of the students who raised the issue are reportedly being taunted and bullied by some of Borden’s staunchest supporters.
“We have a zero tolerance policy in the district, and we reminded them of that at the meeting,” LaDuca said.
Borden’s resignation won’t become official until next Thursday, when the Board of Education will hold its monthly meeting and vote on the matter. Borden has the right to rescind his resignation up until that vote, and is being encouraged to do so by Magistro, as long as he agrees to comply with the guidelines explained to him.
Thus far the coach has given no indication that he intends to do that, and in fact, has already cleaned out his football office.
That has only added fuel to the reaction throughout the state. News crews from most of the major networks have made trips to the school’s campus and Board of Education offices to cover the story.
According to LaDuca, the board has been inundated with e-mails from people supporting Borden, many of whom feel he should be able to pray with his team, even though it violates federal law, and would subject the district to litigation.
There have not been many messages supporting Magistro’s actions.
“The criticism is certainly more to one side than the other,” LaDuca said. “But she couldn’t look the other way, although a lot of people are wishing she did.
“Other superintendents may have looked the other way,” she added. “But JoAnn is not like that. She’s very moral and ethical in every way.”
While Magistro’s actions continue to be subject to debate, Borden’s decision to resign has created a common sentiment among everyone in the East Brunswick football community.
“It’s disappointing,” LaDuca said. “This is supposed to be about the kids, and you can’t help but feel for them, especially the seniors. Is this the way that it should end for them?”
As for Borden, his departure ends what has been a stellar coaching career at East Brunswick. Along with fielding a proud, time-honored football team each year, Borden has also been celebrated for his off-the-field actions. The founder of the Snapple Bowl, a charity all-star football game that has generated more than $150,000 for mentally and physically impaired children, Borden was the recipient of the USA Today magazine’s 2003 national Caring Coach of the Year award, and was also named the American Football Coaches Association Coach of the Year following last year’s championship season.
He also served as the New Jersey Football Coaches Association president, where he was instrumental in changing the state’s playoff system.
But with the story of his resignation gaining steam with each passing day, it appears Borden’s coaching legacy will have less to do with success on the football field than anyone could have anticipated.