Refs walk off in protest after players kneel during anthem at N.Y. football game

Two high school football officials walked off the field in protest Friday night after players from Monroe High School in Middlesex County knelt during the national anthem before the team’s game against visiting Colts Neck.

The officials, Ernie Lunardelli, 54, and his son, Anthony Lunardelli, 27, stood for the anthem and then abruptly left the field after seeing the players kneeling. Their spots on the five-person crew were filled by junior cadet officials at the game, Ernie Lunardelli said.

“I’m not in favor of anyone disrespecting our country, our flag, the armed forces,” Ernie Lunardelli told NJ Advance Media Saturday afternoon. “What they’re protesting has nothing to do with the national anthem and I’m against it, so I decided to protest for them kneeling and that’s what I did.”

Ernie Lunardelli said weeks ago he informed the officials assigner for the Greater Middlesex Conference, Thomas Paulikas, that he would walk off the field if any players knelt for the anthem before his games.

“Whoever is disrespecting that flag and the national anthem, that’s who I have a problem with,” Lunardelli said. “That’s my protest. I don’t care if it’s a baby, if it’s an 80-year-old man, anybody. I don’t care. Any race, color, I don’t care who it is. It’s not the way I was brought up and it pisses me off that people are doing that.”

Paulikas declined comment when reached by phone Saturday.

Lunardelli, meanwhile, said he and his son were unassigned from working Saturday’s game between Spotswood and Raritan.

After Lunardelli and his son left, they were replaced by two cadets who were already assigned to work on the chain crew for the game. Lunardelli alleged Saturday the game is not official because the cadets did not have proper certification or training.

“That game should not count now because they did not have the right personnel on the field,” Lunardelli said. “These kids weren’t officially carded and trained, so they’re putting the kids in jeopardy, I’m not.”

Monroe athletic director Greg Beyer declined comment when reached by phone Saturday. State officials assigner Carmine Picardo also declined to discuss the situation, saying he “did not know what could happen” based on the protest by the Lunardellis.

“I have a lawyer already set up because they’re not going to run me out of town,” Lunardelli said. “They’re going to try to blackball me. I know what’s going to happen.”

High school football players from New Jersey teams such as Woodrow Wilson in Camden, Barringer in Newark and Penns Grove in Salem County knelt last season in protest of social injustices. This season, players from Monroe have knelt before games.

There is nothing in New Jersey statue, code or case law that addresses kneeling during the national anthem at football games, and last year there were no reports of suspensions or other punishments after players knelt. If a public school student was punished for kneeling, it is unlikely the punishment would survive a lawsuit, experts say.

Meanwhile, the state’s governing body for high school sports, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, has no rules regarding the national anthem. But NJSIAA assistant director Jack DuBois said Saturday described Friday’s situation at Monroe as highly unusual.

“I’ve been involved in high school athletics for 48 years and I’ve never seen or heard of an official leaving a game in any sport,” DuBois said. “I don’t think it would be appropriate to comment about what transpired without know exactly what happened and why. I can tell you this will be investigated by both the Central Jersey chapter and our office.”

News of Lunardelli’s protest was first reported by mycentraljersey.com.

Lunardelli expressed anger Saturday over the kneeling movement that began last year with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and spread across most levels of sports. The silent protests were meant to draw attention to racial inequality and police brutality against people of color in the United States.

“What hurts the most is these kids don’t even know why they’re kneeling,” he said. “I just don’t understand why this is happening, especially at the high school level. If you’re not happy with being in America, go somewhere else. It’s that simple.”