Sports

Meet the NCAA Tournament Referee Who Lost His Day Job as a Police Chief for Allegedly Discriminating Against White People

An extremely American saga.

Scirotto, a muscular man with close-cropped hair, walks purposefully while holding a basketball.
Larry Scirotto during a first-round NCAA Tournament game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on March 17. Jamie Sabau/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Big Ten referee Larry Scirotto worked two NCAA Tournament games last weekend in Indianapolis and has reportedly been assigned to the West regional final in San Francisco on Saturday. He is also engaged in a public dispute with the city of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he was removed from his job as chief of police on March 3 after just over six months in the role. The Fort Lauderdale city manager says he was terminated for racially discriminatory hiring and promotion practices—but in a twist on the usual story in which the words “police” and “discrimination” appear, the people he’s accused of being prejudicially hostile toward are white officers. He, the local NAACP branch, and the Fort Lauderdale Black Police Association say he was targeted simply for trying to reform and diversify the department, an effort he was specifically hired to carry out. What’s going on here? We explain below.

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Who is Larry Scirotto?

Scirotto is a 48-year-old Pittsburgh-area native who worked in that city’s police department for 23 years, rising through the ranks to become assistant chief. He has also been a college basketball referee since the late ’90s and has worked for the Big Ten for more than a decade. In 2021, he was a “standby” official at the Final Four.

You can be an NCAA basketball referee and the chief of police in Fort Lauderdale at the same time?

Yes. NCAA referees, in every sport, work on a part-time basis. So do NFL officials, in fact. (The league experimented in 2017 and 2018 with having some of its officials work full time but then “suspended” the practice.) Top conferences reportedly pay refs in the neighborhood of $3,000 per game, but they’re responsible for their own travel costs and accommodations, and the season runs for less than half the year. Having a day job is normal.

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For example: Gene Steratore, the longtime college basketball and pro football official who’s currently employed as an on-air officiating expert for CBS’s March Madness broadcasts, is the founder of a janitorial supply business. Retired NFL official Ed Hochuli, who was famous for having large biceps, was a civil litigator.

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OK, but scheduling around basketball games when you’re a lawyer or small-business owner is maybe different than having some level of responsibility for the public safety of an entire city.

This has, in fact, been an issue during Scirotto’s career.

In 2014, the Pittsburgh Tribune Review reported that over the course of two years he had used 22 “buddy days,” in which another officer covered his scheduled shift, on days he refereed basketball games. Having another officer cover one’s shift in order to work a second job, the paper said, was prohibited by the city’s contract with the police union, although Scirotto said he’d gotten proper approval for everything he did.

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Scirotto began working as Fort Lauderdale’s police chief in August 2021. In December 2021, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that some posters on an online officers’ forum were complaining about his refereeing trips. It’s since become public knowledge that, at some point around this time period, the city’s auditor began investigating Scirotto for allegedly refereeing games during hours that he was also, according to the city’s timesheet tracking system, supposed to have been on the job in Florida.

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This sounds like relatively mundane police department bureaucracy shenanigans, but with a sports twist. Did he actually do it?

The auditor says he came to believe so, yes, although Scirotto has denied doing anything improper—and a draft version of the auditor’s report issued by the city notes that Scirotto made “adjustments” to his schedule, such as working on holidays and starting work early on some days, in order to make up missed time. In any case, in February, the Fort Lauderdale City Commission, which is led by Mayor Dean Trantalis, voted to fire the auditor for having worked on the investigation without its permission.

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So refereeing basketball games wasn’t the reason Scirotto was fired from his job.

No. The events that led to Scirotto’s firing began in October 2021, when three white officers and one Hispanic officer filed complaints with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission arguing that they were passed over for promotions because of their race. The next month, Fort Lauderdale city manager Chris Lagerbloom announced that he was hiring a former assistant state attorney named Gregg Rossman to conduct an outside investigation of Scirotto’s allegedly discriminatory behavior.

In March, Lagerbloom announced that he was firing Scirotto because of Rossman’s report, which concluded that “there is a very divisive atmosphere within the Department based on the perception the Chief is intentionally using race, gender and sexual orientation as attributes necessary for promotions.” It accused Scirotto in particular of saying that he planned to choose the “blacker” candidate for a specific open role and of saying that a wall depicting department officials was “too white.” (According to previous published reports, Scirotto, who is gay, is the son of a Black father and a white mother.)

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Mayor? City manager? Who’s in charge here?

Fort Lauderdale has a “weak-mayor system.” Its mayor is one of five members of a city commission whose votes all count equally. Most decisions—like choosing the police chief—are made by the city manager. But the city manager can be hired and fired by the commission.

What if you went to the front desk in Fort Lauderdale City Hall and asked to “speak to the manager” about, let’s say, returning an item from Target or Walmart? Would that be funny?

Would it?

I take it Scirotto does not agree with the report’s assessment.

No. He denies ever discussing whether one candidate was “blacker” than another and says that of the 15 people he promoted during his time on the force, nine were white men. (A city spokesman declined to address that claim, or any other specifics of Scirotto’s situation, on the grounds that it may be the subject of litigation.)

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He does admit to having said the department was too white and trying to change that. “If I die on the hill for promoting diversity, as I was charged by the city manager to do from the day I was hired,” he told the Sun-Sentinel, “then I will sleep well at night.”

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Indeed, according to previous reporting, Scirotto’s hiring was the culmination of a reckoning about the police department that began with the civil rights protests that were triggered by George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Then-Chief Rick Maglione was dismissed in July 2020 not long after one of the department’s officers was charged with misdemeanor battery for shoving over a kneeling protester while being video recorded. (That case is still pending.)

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The Sun-Sentinel article about Scirotto’s hiring describes “a pivotal time in the history of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, with activists calling for more transparency and accountability amid a turbulent national climate of strained relations between people of color and police.”

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Said Lagerbloom at the time: “We want to really have a police department that is focused on 21st century modern policing. If you want to take an organization somewhere, sometimes you have to look to the outside.” Scirotto said he wanted to implement a number of programs in Fort Lauderdale that he believed had helped improve police-community relations in Pittsburgh, including an online system that residents could use to see information about officer-conduct complaints.

So Larry Scirotto may have gotten caught in the backlash against police reform.

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It does appear that way, especially given the background of Gregg Rossman, the ex-prosecutor whose report was used to justify Scirotto’s firing. In 2020 Rossman ran (unsuccessfully) to become Broward County’s state attorney, and his campaign received donations of $1,000 from a number of local Fraternal Order of Police and Police Benevolent Association Groups, including Fort Lauderdale’s. Rossman also received an individual donation of $500 from a Patrick Lynn of Davie, Florida, who listed his occupation as “retired law enforcement.” Patrick Lynn also happens to be the name of the veteran Davie police officer who was brought on to act as interim chief in Fort Lauderdale before Scirotto was hired. In fact, just this week, it was announced that Patrick Lynn will be Scirotto’s permanent replacement. (The city declined to answer questions about whether the two Patrick Lynns are the same person and whether it was aware that Rossman had previously received campaign donations from groups representing witnesses in his investigation.)

Said Marsha Ellison of the Broward County NAACP to the Sun-Sentinel: “It really seemed like a setup to me. The community is with him. We know that this is wrong.” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission does not appear to have ruled yet on the cases of the officers who accused Scirotto of discrimination.

What happens now?

Scirotto has retained an attorney and says he may seek reinstatement.

He’s “crying foul,” if you will.

I won’t!

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