Refs’ Pink Whistle Controversy Blows Up

SEATTLE (CN) – A group of high school football officials says its members were unfairly disciplined by the Washington Officials Association for wearing pink whistles to support breast cancer awareness and for speaking to the media about it – and because the WOA commissioner wanted to support prostate cancer research instead.

     Referees with the Pacific Northwest Football Officials Association wore pink whistles with their uniforms during October 2010 to help raise funds and awareness for Susan G. Komen For the Cure, which promotes breast cancer treatment and research.
     “In the past, PNFOA had done promotions with various charities without incident,” according to the complaint in King County Court. “For example, in 2009, PNFOA supported the ‘Fallen Hero’ fund for slain Seattle Police Officer Timothy Brenton, and raised $3,800 for his family. Typically, every year the PNFOA raises money for sportsmanship awards to local football teams, usually resulting in 1 or 2 $500 scholarships for student athletes. The WOA had never objected to these events or indicated that the WOA had any authority to regulate them.
      “Based on its previous experience and on the absence of any regulation regarding whistle color or charitable associations, the PNFOA decided in August 2010 that during October 2010, breast cancer awareness month, its football officials would wear pink whistles at football games to publicize Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and that on the weekend of October 21-23, 2010, PNFOA officials would be encouraged to donate their pay to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. As part of the promotion, some crews of PNFOA officials began wearing pink whistles the first weekend of October 2010. PNFOA chose to support Susan G. Komen for the Cure because many of PNFOA’s officials either know someone affected by breast cancer, or have been affected by breast cancer themselves.”
     But halfway through the month, defendant WOA Commissioner Todd Stordahl told PNFOA that pink whistles violate the uniform code – and that the WOA had decided to support a prostate cancer awareness event.
     “PNFOA asked Mr. Stordahl what would happen if they did the promotion anyway, and Mr. Stordahl said PNFOA would be disciplined, up to and including loss of playoff assignments,” the complaint states.
     The referees decided to continue with the breast cancer awareness promotion after determining that rules did not regulate the color of uniform whistles or what charities members could support.
     After PNFOA members began speaking out about the controversy, Stordahl demanded that they stop contacting the media or they would face suspension.
     “On October 20, 2010, one PNFOA member posted a comment on a Seattle Times blog regarding the ‘pink whistle’ controversy, saying ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’ Mr. Stordahl immediately contacted PNFOA officials requesting that contact with the media be stopped. PNFOA sent an email to its membership asking them not to comment. On October 21, 2010, the story appeared on KING 5, CBS, and other media sources. Mr. Stordahl at that point did interviews with the media. PNFOA remained silent. On October 22, 2010, a PNFOA member, Gavin Anderson, did an interview on KING 5. On October 23, 2010, the story went national via the AP and CNN. One more PNFOA official posted a comment on the Seattle Times blog at this point, and another PNFOA member who works in news media reported a story and included the detail that applause greeted the PNFOA’s decision at the October 19, 2010 membership meeting.
     “Mr. Stordahl at this point demanded that all three PNFOA members and officials who had reported on the story, spoken to the media, or commented on blogs be suspended from officiating for one year,” according to the complaint.
     After PNFOA refused to discipline its members for wearing the pink whistles or for commenting to the media, the WOA barred the referees from playoff spots and placed them on probation.
     “Repeatedly, throughout this controversy, the PNFOA has attempted to give the WOA the opportunity to back down gracefully from a legally unsupportable position that has been a public relations disaster for the WOA. The PNFOA has repeatedly offered, for example, to accept some appropriate discipline and then do a joint event and joint donation with WOA in support of Susan G. Komen for the Cure so that WOA could replace some of the critical media coverage with a positive story. These offers were not accepted,” the complaint states.
     The complaint includes an antitrust claim that WOA and the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, which organizes interscholastic athletic competitions for middle and high schools, have an unfair “monopoly” that requires officials to be members of the WOA.
     The referees want to prohibit the tying arrangement between the WIAA and WOA, injunctive relief prohibiting the WOA from violating PNFOA members’ First Amendment rights and economic and non-economic damages. The complaint was filed by Tyler Firkins with Van Siclen Stocks & Firkins of Auburn.

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