Hearing to determine future of officials who walked off field in protest

Pending the findings of an investigation, the New Jersey high school football referees who walked off the field in protest of players taking a knee during the national anthem could be sanctioned, with penalties ranging from a fine to expulsion from the chapter of which they are members.

Scott Heiser, chairman of the Central Jersey Chapter of the New Jersey Football Officials Association, said he will conduct an emergency board of review hearing later this week to examine the referees’ on-field actions, as well as a racist comment one of them allegedly made on social media earlier this year in which he told Barack and Michelle Obama to “go back to the zoo” following President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

The New Jersey Statewide Athletic Association is “looking to us to investigate and flush out the facts, and we will do that,” Heiser said, adding that his organization, not the state’s governing body for scholastic sports, will determine if any sanctions should be imposed.

 Ernie Lunardelli, the head linesman, said he and his son, Anthony, a line judge, stood on the field with their hands on their hearts while the anthem was played prior to Monroe’s home game against Colts Neck on Friday night and that both left the field immediately after the anthem because they saw four Monroe players take a knee.

“Anybody that disrespects the flag, in my eyes, it’s not right,” said Ernie Lunardelli, a veteran scholastic football official in his 18th season. “What they are doing with this kneeling and everything, they have the right do to that, but the national anthem has nothing to do with them kneeling. The flag has got nothing to do with why they are protesting. If they want to protest, let them protest, but don’t disrespect our country, the flag and the armed forces.”

Heiser said the Lunardellis will be invited to testify, along with coaches, athletics directors and administrators from both high schools, as well as all members of the officiating crew including the two cadets who were thrust into duty as replacements.

“We will certainly endeavor to make sure we get a full account of what occurred so we are in the best position to make any judgements insofar as did our officials act in an unprofessional way and should there be any discipline as a result,” Heiser said. “Reports have surfaced that this was not a spontaneous reaction, but rather something pre-planned, and others were previously aware. That is what is causing us in a leadership position at the New Jersey Football Officials Association and the NJSIAA some consternation at this time.”

Ernie Lunardelli said he told Thomas Paulikas, the assigner for the Greater Middlesex Conference, of which Monroe is a member, weeks ago that he would walk off the field and refuse to officiate any game in which players took a knee during the anthem (under league rules, Paulikas is prohibited from talking to the media). Ernie Lunardelli also said he and his son told officials from both high schools of their intentions about 75 minutes prior to kickoff.

“Is this something that could have been avoided?” Heiser asked. “Could (the Lunardellis) have been removed and reassigned at some point beforehand?”

Heiser said the hearing will seek to determine if Paulikas was aware of Ernie Lunardelli’s disposition and if Paulikas should have assigned Lunardelli to Friday night’s game after it had been widely reported throughout the state that Monore players began taking a knee last month.

Four Monroe players first joined the growing number of gridiron players at all levels nationwide who are protesting racial inequality and police brutality when they took a knee prior to a Sept. 28 game at New Brunswick.

Ernie Lunardelli said he has retained a lawyer and is prepared to file a lawsuit if he is sanctioned for walking off the field in protest. Those sanctions, if warranted, could include suspension, Heiser said.

“I don’t have any comment about the officials’ strong views,” Heiser said. “They are entitled. We are not a political organization. The New Jersey Football Officials Association is a wonderfully diverse organization comprised of people of many different backgrounds and perspectives. My concern is did they act professionally and responsibly in the best interest of those we serve. We will review their conduct in those terms.”

Heiser said he feels badly for players from Colts Neck and Monroe who have been thrust into the national spotlight since the Lunardellis walked off the field, a decision that was met with seemingly equal support and derision across social media, reflecting how divided the country is on the issue of taking a knee.

“They are at the beginning of their intellectual awakening and being bombarded by these loud and confusing messages,” Heiser said. “I would like to think they could look to adults – including officials involved in amateur sports – that we continue to support them and we are a positive influence, not a negative or disruptive one. Above all, it is exceedingly important that we act professionally and responsibly. In a vacuum, it doesn’t appear that (the Lunardellis’ conduct Friday night) was the type of behavior I would expect from my officials.”

Heiser said the hearing will also look to determine if the Facebook account of Ernie Lunardelli was hacked, as Ernie Lunardelli told, or if Ernie Lunardelli actually made a racist comment on social media.

Ernie Lunardelli said he never wrote the words, “Thanks for f***ing up the country!! Back to the zoo!!!” in reply to a Jan. 20 Facebook post featuring a picture of Michelle and Barack Obama that thanked them for their service to the country.

“I did not write it,” ErnieLunardelli said of the comment attached to his Facebook profile, adding he is not a racist. “Somebody is trying to cause problems. I was hacked at one time. I don’t remember when it was. I had to change everything. I don’t remember when it was, though.”

Heiser said the New Jersey Officials Association is “diverse and tolerant of everyone” and that those who “are intolerant and insensitive to people of different backgrounds and perspectives really have no place in our organization,” which has about 225 members.

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