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Groups sued over pink-whistle ban

SEATTLE — A high school football referees association is suing Washington state youth athletic governing bodies over the use of pink whistles for a cancer charity.

The lawsuit filed Thursday in King County Superior Court alleges that the Washington Officials Association and the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association infringed on the First Amendment rights of the referees after they were barred from using pink whistles during a breast cancer awareness campaign in 2010 and disciplined for speaking out against the decision.

“It’s frustrating when you try to do something positive for the community and this much controversy surrounds it,” said Pacific Northwest Football Officials Association president Jeff Mattson. “There shouldn’t be any controversy at all.”

According to Mattson, referees of the Pacific Northwest Football Officials Association decided to use pink whistles last year to show support for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation. He said that the uniform code did not specify what color the whistles needed to be.

But Mattson said the WOA changed the rules on the whistles during the football season. From there, the relationship between the referees and the WOA deteriorated. Last month, the governing body disciplined the referees by stripping their allocated playoff spots for the next two postseasons, and putting them on probation for speaking out on local sports blogs about the situation.

Phone and email messages left with the WOA were not returned Friday.

WIAA spokesman Conor Laffey declined to comment on the pending litigation, but added that the organization strives to prevent student athletics from being affected.

Mattson said that stripping the playoff spots stings for many referees who work for years to be awarded one of those slots. Many referees officiate youth games because they love the football, Mattson added.

“All we want to do is give back to the community,” Mattson said. “We give back through officiating.”

He added the pink whistle campaign raised more than $4,700.

Mattson said the referees thought a lawsuit was the best option they had to respond to the disciplinary action. They could have taken the punishment from the WOA, he said, but they felt it was unfair. They also considered striking, but that was ruled out because it would affect the games, he said.

The lawsuit seeks that the WOA rescind its disciplinary action and prevent any more rule-making in the middle of seasons. Part of the lawsuit also aims at breaking up “the monopoly” between the WIAA and WOA, Mattson said. He said that any official who wants to work high school or middle school sports has to be a member of the WOA, something he said was unfair.