Referees walk off football field after high school players kneel during anthem

Eric Adelson
Columnist
(AP)

We’ve had player protests, band protests, cheerleader protests and now something completely new: referee protests.

On Oct. 27, several players from Monroe High in New Jersey kneeled during the national anthem before their game against Colts Neck. A referee and his son – a line judge – then stormed off the field.

“I’ve been in New Jersey interscholastic sports for 48 years and I’ve never seen an official walk off the field unless there was an injury or illness,” Jack DuBois of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) told Yahoo Sports on Monday. “It’s unprecedented.”

Dubois said there were two reviews launched: one by the NJSIAA on Monday morning and the other by the Greater Middlesex Conference (GMC). Later on Monday, NJ Advance Media reported the two officials would not be assigned any other games this season.

“If they walked off once,” GMC officials assigner Thomas Paulikas told the outlet, “what’s going to keep them from doing it tomorrow or the next day?”

The officials are father and son, Ernie Lunardelli and his son Anthony.

“They’ve got a right to protest and so do we,” Anthony Lunardelli told MyCentralJersey.com. “[Protesting during the anthem] is not how I was brought up, and that’s not how I was raised. I’m not criticizing their right. That’s just my viewpoint.”

The emotion of the story ratcheted up again over the weekend as NJ Advance Media found racially offensive social media posts by the elder referee, Ernie Lunardelli. On Jan. 21, he reportedly posted under a photo of former President Barack Obama, “Thanks for [expletive] up the country!! Back to the zoo!!”

Lunardelli was reached by the outlet and said, “I was hacked. I’m not a racist. My best friend is black.”

How far in advance was the referee’s walk-off planned? Did he intend to disrupt or undermine the game? It’s not as if the Monroe protest came as a shock: players at that school had been kneeling since September. Lunardelli said he told the officials’ assigner weeks before that he would vacate a game in which there were player protests. He said he already had a lawyer in tow because he feared being blackballed in the aftermath of the protest. The officials’ assigner disputes any advanced warning.

“No, I don’t recall that ever, having a conversation with him about walking off the field ever,” Paulikas told NJ Advance Media. “He’s a very good official and I’m very surprised that they did what they did.”

The episode raises a broader issue about whether officials who are vehemently opposed to that form of expression should recuse themselves if they know ahead of time that a protest is likely. Colts Neck coach Darian Barnes told NJ Advance Media he was alerted to the possibility of a delay if players protested.

Then there’s the logistical issue of being able to play the game; chain crew workers were used to replace the Lunardellis on Friday.

Barnes alleges prior to walking off the field, Ernie Lunardelli screamed at the kneeling players. Lunardelli denies doing so.

“To me, he’s a coward,” Barnes told NJ Advance Media. “You don’t stand there and scream at a bunch of 16- and 17-year-olds who are just expressing their rights the same as he was expressing his. He’s a grown man. After you tell the other adults what you are going to do, you don’t turn around and scream at kids. That’s what needs to be addressed.”

A call to Barnes on Monday was not immediately returned.

Just about everyone involved with football has strong feelings about the protests, but longtime NFL referee Jim Daopoulos says it’s incumbent upon every official to keep those emotions at home.

“I don’t know if sticking your head in the sand is the right phrase to use,” he told Yahoo Sports on Monday. “There are issues that need to be addressed but I don’t think they need to be addressed by officials. Worry about the game, the procedures. I would hope they would all stay out of it.”

Daopoulos speaks to NFL officials frequently and he says the protests at the pro level haven’t even come up in conversation. “I can almost say to a man they would have no bias toward any players,” he says.

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