A father and son who were part of an officiating crew assigned to work a New Jersey high school football game walked off the field in protest after members from one of the teams took a knee during the playing of the National Anthem on Friday night.
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 and that both left the field immediately after the anthem’s conclusion because they witnessed 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.”
Anthony Lunardelli, who graduated from Monroe in 2008 and played football at the high school, said he perceived kneeling during the anthem as a sign of disrespect.
“They’ve got a right to protest and so do we,” Anthony Lunardelli said. “That (taking a knee 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.”
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.
Monroe High School Athletics Director Greg Beyer, who declined to comment on the officials’ decision to walk off the field Friday night and who has previously stated he does not know the names of the four Monroe players who have taken a knee, told MyCentralJersey.com earlier this month that district policy permits the school’s student-athletes to peacefully protest.
“We have to follow what is in the policy,” Beyer said, “and pretty much the policy is if a kid doesn’t want to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, that’s his constitutional right, so we have to handle it (taking a knee during the playing of the anthem) the same exact way.”
Ernie Lunardelli said two cadets (officials in training) who were assigned to work the chains replaced him and his son as part of a five-man crew and that Beyer recruited two parents to work the chains. The game, which Colts Neck won 18-13, was completed without incident.
Ernie Lunardelli said that about 75 minutes before kickoff he and his son notified parties from both schools of their intention to walk off the field if players from either team took a knee during the anthem.
Anthony Lunardelli said Monroe school officials told him they plan to file a complaint with the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.
“They are trying to get them to not give us any more games, basically saying we put the players’ safety in danger, but we didn’t,” Anthony Lunardelli said. “They obviously had enough officials to do the game. I’m not really worried about (being sanctioned). If I don’t ref again, it won’t be the end of the world.”
Carmine Picardo, coordinator of football officials for the NJSIAA, said he did not want to speculate on what sanctions, if any, the Lunardellis may face. Picardo said he believes the Lunardellis are the first to walk off the field in protest during his 40 years of officiating.
Greater Middlesex Conference football committee chairman Ben LaSala said he will discuss the issue during the league’s regularly scheduled athletics directors meeting on Thursday and with GMC varsity football officials assigner Thomas Paulikas as soon as possible. Paulikas is prohibited under league rules from talking to the media.
In juxtaposition to Monroe allowing its student-athletes to take a knee during the playing of the anthem, the principal at Parkway, a public high school in Louisiana, informed his players prior to their game on Sept. 29 that such protests could result in them being removed from the team.
Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the New York Times that Parkway and any other schools that adopt similar policies “should be on notice that these policies are in fact unconstitutional” because “the law does not permit schools to forbid students from expressing their views.”
Kevin Ciak, president of the National School Boards Association and president of the Sayreville Board of Education, shared with MyCentralJersey.com an official statement from the NSBA which provides school districts with guidance.
“Courts have consistently upheld that students do not shed their first amendment rights at the schoolhouse door, provided such expression does not create a disruption to the educational process,” the statement reads in part.
Parochial schools and dioceses which govern them can and have established their own policies regarding the conduct of student-athletes during the playing of the anthem.
While the Diocese of Metuchen, which oversees Bishop Ahr in Edison, has not provided its schools with guidance regarding anthem protests, according to Bishop Ahr Athletics Director Mike Wolfthal, the Diocese of Camden issued a directive last year that any student-athletes who did not stand for the anthem at sporting events could be suspended or dismissed from the team.
At least two Supreme Court rulings protect students’ rights to peacefully protest on campus during school hours and events. The Supreme Court in 1969 ruled that public school students who wanted to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War during school hours could do so. A 1943 Supreme Court ruling involving Jehovah Witnesses who were expelled from school for not reciting the Pledge of Allegiance said public school students could not be forced to salute the American Flag or recite the pledge if it conflicted with their religious beliefs.
On Sept. 24, many NFL players took a knee or elected to remain in the locker room during the playing of the anthem, following the lead one year later of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was the first professional player to take a knee in protest.
The more than 200 NFL players who protested on Sept. 24 did so a week after President Donald Trump said the league’s owners should fire players who protest during the anthem.
“I feel good with myself,” Ernie Lunardelli said of his decision to walk off the field in protest. “If I was in this situation again, I’d do it again tomorrow.”