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

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.”

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Pro athletes protesting during the national anthem
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Pro athletes protesting during the national anthem
Sep 10, 2017; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers tight end Martellus Bennett (80) holds his fist in the air during the national anthem prior to the game against the Seattle Seahawks at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
GREEN BAY, WI - SEPTEMBER 10: Michael Bennett #72 of the Seattle Seahawks sits on the bench during the national anthem prior to the game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on September 10, 2017 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Bennett was controversially detained by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department on August 27, after the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor UFC fight. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 26: Offensive tackle Cameron Jefferson #60 of the Buffalo Bills raises his arm and makes a fist during the national anthem before playing against the Baltimore Ravens during a preseason game at M&T Bank Stadium on August 26, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - AUGUST 27: Eric Reid #35 of the San Francisco 49ers kneels dugout the National Anthem before the preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings on August 27, 2017 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 21: A group of Cleveland Browns players kneel in a circle in protest during the national anthem prior to a preseason game against the New York Giants at FirstEnergy Stadium on August 21, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Aug 21, 2017; Cleveland, OH, USA; Members of the Cleveland Browns kneel during the national anthem before a game against the New York Giants at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
PHILADELPHIA, PA - AUGUST 17: Malcolm Jenkins #27 of the Philadelphia Eagles holds his fist in the air while Chris Long #56 of the Philadelphia Eagles puts his arm around him during the national anthem prior to the preseason game against the Buffalo Bills at Lincoln Financial Field on August 17, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - SEPTEMBER 12: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers kneels in protest during the national anthem prior to playing the Los Angeles Rams in their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on September 12, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - OCTOBER 02: (L-R) Rashard Robinson #33, Antoine Bethea #41, and Jaquiski Tartt #29 of the San Francisco 49ers raise their fists in protest during the national anthem prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi's Stadium on October 2, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 25: Brandon Marshall #54 of the Denver Broncos takes a knee in protest during the National Anthem before the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on September 25, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.The Broncos defeated the Bengals 29-17. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)
FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 22: Duane Brown #76 of the Houston Texans raises his fist during the national anthem before the game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on September 22, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 18: Kenny Stills #10 of the Miami Dolphins (C) kneels during the national anthem before the game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on September 18, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Philadelphia Eagles players Steven Means (51), Malcolm Jenkins (27) and Ron Brooks (33) raise their fists in the air during the national anthem for a game against the Chicago Bears on Monday, Sept. 19, 2016 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)
Sep 8, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos inside linebacker Brandon Marshall (54) kneels during the national anthem next to defensive end Jared Crick (93) and defensive tackle Billy Winn (97) and defensive tackle Adam Gotsis (99) before the game against the Carolina Panthers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA, CA - SEPTEMBER 12: Kenny Britt #18 and Robert Quinn #94 of the Los Angeles Rams raise their fists in protest prior to playing the San Francisco 49ers in their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on September 12, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
MIAMI GARDENS, FL - NOVEMBER 06: Miami Dolphins Safety Michael Thomas (31) and Miami Dolphins Wide Receiver Kenny Stills (10) kneel in protest during signing of the National Anthem during the NFL football game between the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins on November 6, 2016, at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, FL. (Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - OCTOBER 06: (L-R) Eli Harold #58, Colin Kaepernick #7, and Eric Reid #35 of the San Francisco 49ers kneel in protest during the national anthem prior to their NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at Levi's Stadium on October 6, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
JACKSONVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 25: Hayes Pullard #52 of the Jacksonville aJaguars nd Dante Fowler #56 raise their fists in protest during the singing of the national anthem before the game against the Baltimore Ravens at EverBank Field on September 25, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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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.”

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Fans react to NFL players protesting during national anthem
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Fans react to NFL players protesting during national anthem
Oct 8, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans fan holds up signs before the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 01: A fan in the stands yells at players during the national anthem prior to the game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Buffalo Bills at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 1, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 01: A Cleveland Browns fan holds a sign in protest durning the nation anthem in the game between the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 1, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Justin Aller /Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 01: Fans making a statement about the recent national anthem protests during a football game at NRG Stadium on October 1, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - OCTOBER 01: A detail view of a sign displayed by fans during a game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on October 1, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 01: Fans making a statement about the recent national anthem protests during a football game at NRG Stadium on October 1, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Los Angeles Charger fans make their way to the stadium past Donald Frazell from Los Angeles as he holds a sign near other protesters demonstrating in support of NFL players who "take a knee" before kickoff and during the National Anthem protesting police violence outside the StubHub Center where the Los Angeles Chargers are playing the Philadelphia Eagles in an NFL football game in Carson, California, U.S. October 1, 2017. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok
Oct 1, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos fans show their support with t-shirts in reference to standing for the American national anthem during the fourth quarter of a game against the Oakland Raiders at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2017; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers fans hold up signs in the fourth quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Cleveland Browns fans during their game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; A New England Patriots fan holds a sign as they take on the Houston Texans in the second half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 25: Fans hold signs before the singing of the National Anthem before the NFL game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Dallas Cowboys at the University of Phoenix Stadium on September 25, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
At the start of the game protestors take a knee in support of the movement started by NFL player Colin Kaepernick, outside Lincoln Financial Field, in South Philadelphia, PA, on September 24, 2017. Similar protest are staged around the nation after US President Donald Trump named Kaepernick a Son of A Bitch at a recent rally. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 8: A fan of the Cincinnati Bengals holds up a sign showing his opposition to players kneeling during the national anthem during the game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills at Paul Brown Stadium on October 8, 2017 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)
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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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