Mike Atkinson has been a high school football referee in Texas for more than 25 years. The long-time official received the Distinguished Service Award by the Greater Houston Coaches Association, has worked numerous Texas state championship games over the years, and is considered by many to be the best referee in Texas.
Mike Atkinson also uses racist language in casual conversation and employs an all-white officiating crew.
The Texas Association of Sports Officials (TASO) suspended Atkinson for the entire 2019 season after a lawsuit uncovered audio recordings of Atkinson using racist language on multiple occasions. Under Texas law, any phone conversation can be legally recorded if just one person consents.
The lawsuit was filed by Joe Machol, a former Texas football referee and long-time clock operator for the NFL's Houston Texans, who alleges his removal from both positions was due to the corrupt nature of TASO.
According to a revealing report by the Houston Chronicle, the lawsuit was filed after Machol thought he was wrongly removed as president of TASO's Houston chapter. In addition, Machol states in the lawsuit that after losing a close race for that chapter president's seat, Atkinson allegedly openly blamed "southside n——-s" who voted for Machol.
Short audio clips obtained by the Chronicle don't offer specific context to Atkinson's racist comments on other occasions, but that didn't matter to Atkinson. He claims they were taken out of context and says he was "baited into" using the N-word numerous times.
"I'm a jokester," Atkinson said. "I like to listen to things. I watch Black Entertainment Television (BET) all the time because I think it's hilarious. I may have picked up something... I don't know. I don't know."
Listen for yourself to see how much of a "jokester" this guy really is.
WARNING: The audio recording below contains NSFW language.
TASO initially suspended Atkinson for two weeks at the start of the 2019 season, then three weeks at the end of the year during postseason play. After cries that the punishment wasn't harsh enough, the organization enforced the full-year ban. Atkinson needs to file a petition and get approval by both the TASO state Board of Directors, as well as Houston's chapter, in order to be reinstated for the 2020 season.
"That's unacceptable," high school official James Burkhalter said. "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."
Muddying the water on this story even more, the lawsuit alleges that TASO executive director Michael Fitch, TASO State Assistant Executive Director Bill Theodore, and then-treasurer Geoff Marolda all heard Atkinson make racist comments in private conversations on different occasions, yet failed to act in any way.
"I can't remember every conversation that I've ever had with Mike [Atkinson], so I'm not going to say that it was never said. But I don't recall it," Fitch said.
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Texas high school football is king. Don't believe me? Just ask the Texas football head coaches who make more money than you ever thought was possible. The second-largest state in America saw over 164,000 students play 11-man football during the 2017-18 school year, according to NFHS statistics. That's 50,000 more kids playing football than the second-highest state total out in California.
And yet, these young football players from Dallas to Austin, and even on powerhouse West Texas football teams like Odessa and Midland, are at the mercy of shady racist football officials like Atkinson.
The Houston Chronicle's report states that several TASO members believe Atkinson deliberately picked an all-white crew every single year, and only added an African-American official for playoff games when it was required. Even when game crews were expanded from five-man to seven-man teams, the change "had no effect on Mike."
An anonymous source said, "To be that white in Houston, you have to be doing it on purpose."
Census data from 2018 reveals that 58.5 percent of Houston residents identify as white only. Almost 23 percent identify as African-American only and 44.5 percent reported being at least partially Hispanic or Latino. You can be the judge if Atkinson's crew is a fair representation of the city where he lives and works.
Whether or not you believe Atkinson's claim that he's not blatantly racist, it's impossible to deny that TASO's Houston chapter has a serious problem. Back in 2017, Atkinson himself told the Chronicle that of the organization's 1,000-plus members, there were more people over 60 years old than there were under 30.
Atkinson thinks this whole charade is just a ploy to get him out of power, too.
"For more than 25 years, my crew has been on top. This is just a way to take the guy on top down," he said.
Maybe it's time for Atkinson to have a good long look in the mirror and actually take accountability for his actions.
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