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R.I. football officials still operating under cloud of uncertainty

August 11, 2013

Pawtucket native Bruce Guindon poses in the end zone closest to the scoreboard at Pariseu Field this past Saturday morning. A registered Rhode Island high school football official, Guindon says that it’s possible that the season’s games could go off without a full complement of R.I. officials. PHOTO BY ERNEST A. BROWN

Just when all seemed copacetic, serious doubts have crept in regarding this autumn’s Rhode Island high school gridiron slate and the inclusion of a full complement of registered R.I. football officials.

Last week, a number of terms and conditions that the Rhode Island Football Officials Association (RIFOA) and Jim Ashley, commissioner of officials for the South Eastern Massachusetts Football Officials Association (SEMFOA) and now primary overseer of R.I. football officiating, agreed on at a July meeting were reneged upon. This unexpected turn of events has left a number of R.I. officials frustrated and confused, particularly since the group agreed to put on a brave face in the aftermath of an April decision that saw the R.I. Principals’ Committee on Athletics (PCOA) vote to enter into a two-year agreement with SEMFOA.

Pawtucket native and veteran R.I. football official Bruce Guindon says he’s concerned that his fellow referees may decide the new conditions go a step too far. On Tuesday night at the RIFOA’s annual summer meeting, the revamped parameters that Ashley presented to a group of 10 Ocean State officials will be discussed before a larger audience, as 60 members are expected to attend. Ashley will also be on hand for this crucial get-together at Cranston’s Pawtuxet Athletic Club.

What happens if the Rhode Island officials draw a line in the sand and reject what Ashley has requested? Guindon said the fallout would necessarily entail some serious revisions to the 2013 high school football schedule that’s already been released.

“The possibility lies in the bushes that our guys could say, ‘Wait a minute,’” Guindon remarked. “It would throw a wrench into the schedule. The games may go off, but they may get moved to Thursdays and Sundays.”

With non-league games slated the weekend of Sept. 13-14, Guindon’s statement can be construed as a shot across the bow. What’s the solution? Some serious fence-mending needs to happen between all involved parties, and fast. Otherwise, coaches and players could be in store for a seismic shakeup with unforeseen consequences.

***

The timeline of events leading up to this potential showdown between RIFOA and Ashley involves many layers. For starters, the PCOA made a loud statement by voting 15-1 to take the R.I. football officials’ contract and put it in the hands of an out-of-state person. With Ashley granted full discretionary power, the RIFOA appeared to be in a susceptible position.

Or so it would seem.

“The (R.I. Interscholastic League) and Jim Ashley knew that they did not have enough officials, so they needed to do something,” Guindon explained. “From the beginning, Tom Mezzanotte (RIIL executive director) asked us to put aside our differences and register with the league. At first, we told him, ‘No way.’”

The clear-cut rejection set in motion for yet another New England state to throw a log on the fire. Ten days following the PCOA’s April 10 ruling, Mezzanotte was approached by Connecticut officials “to offer help in any way, shape or form,” this according to Guindon. Mezzanotte then brokered a meeting between Ashley and Rick Bogart via the Southern Connecticut Association.

Upon putting their heads together, the two non-Rhode Islanders came to the same conclusion that was apparent the same day the RIFOA was told to step aside. Officials hailing from the same state as where the actual games will take place were still needed. With the Interscholastic League seeking to dot the i’s and cross the t’s schedule-wise, Guindon and his fellow officials emerged from the shadows and into the light.

“We were pursued by Connecticut, Jim Ashley and the (RIIL),” Guindon said. “Why would they pursue us if everything was okay?”

***

Not all Rhode Island officials snubbed Mezzanotte’s alleged olive branch to join the Interscholastic League. In May, a total of 16 registered officials signed up with the RIIL.

“We had several meetings to try and keep everyone together. At one point we had guys sign a form saying that they wouldn’t leave,” said Guindon. “We were hoping those guys would have kept that commitment.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one of the 16 officials said he remains a fully-fledged RIFOA member even though he took the Interscholastic League’s deal.

“The 16 of us who left really love refereeing football and we all want to make sure that Rhode Island has a better chance of getting the next contract in two years,” said the anonymous official.

The latest twist in the R.I. officiating saga could have been a death knell to the RIFOA, which at that point Guindon expressed “was on life support.” During the several subsequent meetings between Ashley and RIFOA higher-ups and later with the entire brotherhood of officials, Guindon concluded that fighting City Hall was no longer feasible.

“You either pull the plug and you die, or you went into assisted living,” was the analogy Guindon drew in reference to the two options the RIFOA had. “The assisted living part is that Ashley is going to assign games and basically clean our house. Hopefully in two years, we’re back to where we used to be.”

On Friday, July 26, 44 R.I. officials submitted paperwork to Ashley. The transaction included the filing of availability forms and paying $65 in dues to the RIFOA.

In the past, $15 would cover the registration fee with the RIIL with the RIFOA relying on the balance to cover the cost of operating expenses. In yet another example of the landscape changing, each RIFOA member had to pay an assigning fee – roughly $18 of the $65 – to Ashley and SEMFOA (Ashley did not respond to an email seeking comment).

“He then calls it an administration fee,” notes Guindon. “There’s no administration fee.”

A major reason why the R.I. officials found themselves vulnerable when their deal with the Interscholastic League expired stems from shunning the idea of an evaluation system that would have gone a long way in weeding out the officials deemed by football coaches as problematic.

“Some coaches felt the guys who were better should have gotten more games, while those who were incompetent should have gotten less,” Guindon said.

This season will see R.I. officials operate in a fishbowl. The plan calls for Ashley to deploy observers for the sole purpose of critiquing how each R.I. official performs. RIFOA plans to follow suite.

“He will evaluate his way and we’re going to evaluate our way. Our way has nothing to do with his evaluation, nor will it have any input in saving or getting rid of officials,” said Guindon. “We simply want to see how it works and in two years go to the coaches and say, ‘This is what we’ve done.’ We’ve even offered to Tom Mezzanotte and the league and to Jim Ashley that at the end of the (2013 season), we give you our evaluations and you can compare them to yours.”

***

For some unbeknownst reason, all the understandings that RIFOA and Ashley came to were torn up with new guidelines put in place. Initially, RIFOA was informed that they would work each 2013 game “as a group of Rhode Island officials,” Guindon relayed. Last week, RIFOA was told that they would be subjected to hodgepodge crews with officials from Massachusetts and Connecticut mixed into the equation.

Instead of working at the start of the season, a number of R.I. officials will now have to wait until Week 4 of the regular season before stepping onto the field. (According to one of the 16 officials who joined the RIIL, they were told that they would have assignments during the first three weeks.) Initially, R.I. officials were told that they would receive 8-10 games.

“It’s a big deal because we presented this information to our people,” Guindon said. “Now the parameters have changed.”

The on-field mechanics that Ashley presented to the 10-person panel last week would now be in compliance with NCAA rules. Rhode Island has adhered to National Federation rules. The difference between the two sets of regulations were on full display during a High School All-Star Game held in late June at Bryant University with Guindon passing along that the R.I. officials who sat in the stands counted five flags that were waved off “because of interpretation problems or whatever.”

“There’s a difference in penalty enforcement,” Guindon went on. “If you’re thinking of the game in terms of NCAA rules, that creates an issue when you discuss (a penalty) and say it’s Federation. That might have been the reason they picked up some of those flags.”

Guindon said that the 10 R.I. officials present tried to pin Ashley down for a concrete reason regarding the rationale behind the alterations, but to no avail. Connecticut’s Bogart was also on hand for last week’s confab, his presence raising an interesting question about how assignments for R.I. games will be doled out – providing there’s enough R.I. officials to cover the bases.

“Rick is doing all the assigning for the southern and western part of Rhode Island, but he answers to Jim Ashley, who will handle the assignments for the north,” Guindon made clear. “If there are in issues with (games in Bogart’s territory), he and Jim Ashley will talk.”

“Ultimately, Jim Ashley has the hiring and firing ability,” Guindon continued. “He’s in charge.”

***

Guindon says that R.I. officials remain in the dark about the Injury Fund games on the docket for Thursday, Sept. 5 and Saturday, Sept. 7. “This is just my opinion, but I can’t imagine that our guys will be willing to volunteer to work the Injury Fund after finding out they won’t be working the first three weeks.”

Reagrding freshman and junior varsity football, Guindon mentioned that an agreement was reached with Moses Brown Athletic Director Jeff Maidment, who is also the President of the Rhode Island Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (RIIAAA).

“(The RIFOA) will work very closely with the AD’s at each school to make sure that everything is handled to the satisfaction of both sides,” Guindon said.

If only the same could be said about the varsity level. Reached via email last week, Interscholastic League Assistant Director Mike Lunney replied “yes” and “yes” to whether the situation involving the R.I. officials had been resolved, and that players and coaches can expect their presence on the field come the fall.

Come Tuesday night, we’ll definitely learn if the vast majority of R.I. officials are still part of the state’s high-school football fabric. Should the opposite hold true, then it will be interesting to see what develops with the regular season roughly a month away.

Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03

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