Longtime Texas high school football referee Mike Atkinson was suspended for the 2019 season by the Texas Association of Sports Officials on Tuesday for using the N-word in recorded phone conversations.
Adam Coleman and Jerome Solomon of the Houston Chronicle received a copy of the audio recordings, which were mentioned in a lawsuit filed by former TASO Houston chapter president Joe Machol, from the unnamed individual who recorded the racist remarks.
"I thought these were private conversations between friends," Atkinson said. "I promise you with my life, using the N-word by me is true, but I will promise you with my life, my wife's life, my kids' life and everything I do, (the person who taped him) also used that word. We were back and forth. I understand what it sounds like, but I was baited into it."
Atkinson is heard on the tapes describing a visit to a Chapter and Crew Mixer in February, saying "I just went to the mixer the other day ... a bunch of f--king n----rs wanting a free meal."
The 45-year officiating veteran told the Houston Chronicle he was first informed of potential punishment in May when he was told he'd be suspended five weeks—the first two weeks of the regular season and the entirety of the three-week state football tournament.
He said his efforts to appeal were put on hold, and sources told Coleman and Solomon the decision to increase it came after push back from other TASO members.
"That's unacceptable," Houston-based official James Burkhalter told the newspaper. "Not with these kinds of blatant comments. We cannot have a guy like that, a guy who's actually been a spokesman for our chapter, as part of our group."
Atkinson must appeal to the TASO state board and the Houston chapter board for reinstatement following the 2019 campaign.
"Several TASO Houston chapter members told the Chronicle that Atkinson has long had an all-white crew and rarely adds an African-American unless it is a demand or requirement for certain playoff games," the report noted. "Often, schools involved in football playoff games will request what is known as a 'mixed crew.'"
"For more than 25 years, my crew has been on top," Atkinson said. "This is just a way to take the guy on top down. I've been on top for so long, and if they can whack me down, it pushes them up the ladder a little bit."
It's unclear whether Atkinson has recourse to appeal the latest ruling after his previous efforts were put on hold. The 2019 season is scheduled to kick off in late August.