N.J. ref plans legal action after officiating assignments revoked following protest

Ernie Lunardelli, one of two refs who walked off the field in protest after four Monroe High School football players took a knee during the national anthem, plans to take legal action now that he has been removed from future officiating assignments for the remainder of the regular season.

Ernie Lunardelli and his son Anthony, who also walked off the field in protest prior to Friday night’s game against Colts Neck, had their Greater Middlesex Conference officiating assignments rescinded today for the rest of the year.

Thomas Paulikas, the league’s assigner, told that the Lunardellis have been removed from a Nov. 6 jayvee game they were scheduled to officiate between South Brunswick and Monroe and a Nov. 23 varsity game for which they were booked between North Brunswick and South Brunswick. Ernie Lunardelli had already been removed from his assignment to officiate a game between Raritan and Spotswood a day after he walked off Monroe’s field in protest.

Ernie Lunardelli, who has retained an attorney, said “without a doubt” he plans to take legal action, which may include seeking an injunction to have his assignments reinstated. Ernie Lunardelli said he believes his due process rights have been violated because Paulikas removed him from officiating assignments without an investigation into his actions and that he is being “discriminated” against for walking off the field because he believes taking a knee during the anthem is disrespectful.

“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.”

In a statement released late Monday afternoon by his attorney Michael V. Dowgin, Lunardelli tempered his remarks, saying that “a discussion might be appropriate, and where we can better understand why young players kneel, and why they kneel at the time they do. Also, where they can maybe understand why we refused to officiate a football game, and why we did it at the time we chose. There are rights and wrongs on both sides and we would welcome that discussion if an appropriate forum can be arranged.”

READ: The statement released Monday afternoon by referee

Paulikas told he removed Lunardelli from his remaining games because he did not know how Lunardelli would react if a player or players took a knee at future contests and because he did not feel Lunardelli could return to Monroe to officiate this year.

Scott Heiser, chairman of the Central Jersey Chapter of the New Jersey Football Officials Association (NJFOA), said he will conduct an emergency board of review hearing later this week to examine the Lunardellis’ conduct.

NJSIAA Executive Director Steve Timko said the statewide athletics association is aware of the Lunardellis’ protest and that the Central Jersey Chapter of the NJFOA is responsible for “providing a first-level of due process related to any dispute involving officials.”

“NJSIAA has been notified that the NJFOA has scheduled a hearing for this Wednesday,” Timko said. “Any appeal to a Central Jersey Chapter ruling would go to the NJSIAA for a hearing. Because this is an active matter — and to ensure due process for all involved — the NJSIAA will refrain from commenting on specifics. While we certainly understand the interest in this issue, it’s imperative we allow for due process.”

‘Planning on doing those games’

Ernie Lunardelli said he is “mad” about being removed from officiating games for the rest of the season.

“I was planning on doing those games,” he said. “It’s taking away what I like doing. I got an email that I was removed from the games. They didn’t have the (intestinal fortitude) to call me or tell me why. Nobody has contacted me. They just removed me. To me, I think that’s wrong. They should be man enough to have a conference with me and discuss and provide proof of why you can do that. I don’t know what proof they have that they can just automatically take me off a game. I didn’t do anything wrong, and that’s discriminating against me.”

In his statement Monday afternoon, which his lawyer said would be the last time Lunardelli would comment on the situation, the referee said he and his son “would like to stay out of the media  from now on. We may have asked for it, but now would like to go back being anonymous. We also would like to go back to officiating games. We do not believe we have done anything that should deny us that right.”

Regarding Wednesday’s hearing, 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 judgments 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 Paulikas weeks ago that he would walk off the field and refuse to officiate any game in which players took a knee during the anthem. Paulikas said no such conversation ever took place and that he was unaware of Ernie Lunardelli’s disposition. Ernie Lunardelli also said he and his son told officials from both high schools of their intentions about 75 minutes prior to kickoff.

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 Monroe players began taking a knee last month.

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

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