- Associated Press - Thursday, May 19, 2011

This just in from the Department of No Good Deed Goes Unpunished:

After sitting on its hands for seven months, a Washington state referees association decided earlier this week to ban nearly 150 high school football officials from working most postseason games during the next two years _ all because the refs wore pink whistles during games last fall.

Too soul-numbingly stupid to be true?


But that only begins to explain how something that started out as a neat little effort to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer research turned into a cautionary tale about revenge and what happens when the wrong people get their hands on a rulebook. Just when you thought the NCAA had cornered the market on bureaucratic silliness in sports, along comes the Washington Officials Association and commissioner Todd Stordahl.

“Amazing,” said Frank Naish, the football coach at Inglemoor High, just north of Seattle, for the last 30 years. “It bit ‘em last year, when the story first came out, and the response was ‘What the heck are you doing?’ Then they back off. It quiets down for 6-7 months, and instead of just letting it die, they throw gasoline on the fire. …

“It’s just a little power play and mean-spirited to boot,” he added in a telephone call Thursday. “Now they got a bunch of people mad and talking about picketing their offices.”

The WOA’s disciplinary decision was first reported Tuesday by KIRO-FM in Seattle. The station also reported the 143 members of the Pacific Northwest Football Officials Association, which covers King County and falls under the statewide umbrella of the WOA, will have the majority of their playoff games revoked for the next two years. According to the report, the PNFOA was also placed on probation for the next three years.

PNFOA president Jeff Mattson declined comment Thursday via email. Stordahl did not respond to phone or email requests. But according to the report, if the WOA finds the refs in violation of another offense during that time, it can decertify the local association, meaning the referees could be out of work.

The brouhaha dates back to last October, when PNFOA members were looking for a way to support the fight against breast cancer. The disease had touched the lives of so many officials that someone came up with the idea of wearing pink whistles for a week’s worth of games. Then members decided to go a step further and donate their game checks to the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

But their bosses at the WOA, which supervises 150 referees’ associations in all, put the kibosh on the idea. They decided pink whistles were a violation of the uniform code. Then they warned that any ref wearing one could face suspension and the loss of a game check. Besides, Stordahl contended, think of the precedent it would set.

“It sends the wrong message to kids that are playing the game,” he said then. “‘If they broke the rules, why can’t I do the same.’”

The PNFOA decided to go ahead with its plan, anyway. Not surprising, the refs’ efforts were warmly received.

“Everyone there loved the whistles, the whole atmosphere, kind of like what you saw when the NFL did it,” Naish recalled. “We had a fundraiser to go along with it.

“I had lost a sister to breast cancer that April and one of my kids lost his mom a month earlier, so it was a really cool thing at the local level. It was an opportunity for football, which is all about men, to honor women.”

Oddly enough, the WOA had previously approved a “blue flags” football weekend in support of prostate cancer awareness, as well as “pink whistle” events in volleyball, soccer and basketball. Yet Stordahl said last fall the organization decided against pink whistles for football to keep the focus on the players and games.

More revealing, though, might have been something else he said at the time: “There’s one person who has the authority to make that decision, and it’s not PNFOA.”

For all that, though, Stordahl appeared to relent in the face of the backlash from the football community around Seattle, doing an about-face in a message posted on the association’s website. “The WOA did not have nor continues to have any intention to fine, take away games or deny paychecks to any member due to wearing a pink whistle,” it said.

Until Tuesday, that is. By then, after nursing a grudge for all those months, Stordahl apparently decided to show the refs who was boss. That’s some message to send the kids, not to mention everybody else involved in a worthy cause.

“We appreciate what these referees were trying to do, and we were sorry to hear about the sanctions for supporting breast cancer programs in Washington State,” said Andrea Rader, a spokesman for the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

Something tells me they’re not the only ones.


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org

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