High school football was saved in Lee County not because of the negotiating skills of either side of a labor dispute, but because of the generosity of a group of local business owners.
It was announced Friday afternoon that the local football referees and the School District of Lee County had reached a deal to end the refs’ work stoppage. Members of the South Gulf Football Officials Association wanted a raise, while the schools refused to give it.
The refs will return to work next week, Week 1 of the high school football regular season, even though they will not receive a cent more from the school district. However, they did get a raise.
Brian Rist, founder and executive chairman of Storm Smart in Fort Myers, led a group of local businessmen who donated money to the SGFOA to end the holdout. Rist’s group gifted the football officials $9,000, which equates to $10 more per ref per game this season.
“I’m not weighing in on whether the refs should be paid more or whether the schools were right or wrong,” Rist said. “What I know is wrong is that the kids worked all summer to play football, and that wasn’t going to happen.”
Rist said many of his 200 employees have children affected by the officials’ work stoppage – football players, cheerleaders or band members. Rist played high school football in Massachusetts and remains a fan of the sport even though his own children are grown.
The SGFOA originally agreed to officiate Lee school district games for $65 per person per game this season, hoping they would get a raise. When the raise didn’t come, the officials voted not to work.
The refs originally were asking for about $100 per person, which is what neighboring states pay. The SGFOA eventually asked for a $10 per official raise plus a $300 administrative fee per school, but the school district refused.
“I was talking to a few friends of mine, business owners, and we wanted to see if there was anything we could do to make a difference,” Rist said. “For a relatively small amount of money we could help bridge that gap (between the officials and the schools).
“I didn’t get into the politics of it. I didn’t care about that. I just wanted those kids to play.”