It’s a thankless job. Anonymity is the reward, not the pay. Working conditions include taunts, insults, aspersions on everything from one’s eyesight to one’s mother and even projectile soda cans and gobs of saliva.
It’s a thankless job, being a game official, and it’s become a dangerous one. But what would sports be without referees, umpires, judges and linesmen? Total anarchy.
There can be a thin line between contest and brawl or athlete and assailant, especially in violent sports such as football. We’ve seen bench-clearing melees, hockey slugfests, youth-league fights, Malice at the Palace when NBA players went after fans in the stands.
But few incidents are as disturbing as what happened during a high school football game in Texas, under the Friday Night Lights, when two players attacked a referee on the field. Worse, it was an orchestrated play.
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It was vicious. It forces the question: What sort of retaliatory emotions are kids harboring or learning or copying?
Why would they risk wrecking their lives — and that of the ref — on a cheap shot in a football game?
It’s mind-boggling how sports can bring out the ugliness in people.
In a video that went viral, San Antonio John Jay High No. 12, identified as sophomore Victor Rojas, rammed referee Robert Watts from behind just after the ball was snapped as Watts stood in the defensive backfield. The blindside hit snapped Watts’ head back and knocked him to the ground. Then Jay High No. 81, identified as senior Mike Moreno, speared Watts with his helmet as he dove onto him.
It was the final minute of the game Jay High lost 15-9 at Marble Falls High, 90 miles north of San Antonio. Rojas was immediately ejected, but during the confusion Moreno stayed in. On the final play, the Marble Falls quarterback took a knee to run out the clock. Moreno, apparently in need of another victim, tackled him and was penalized for a late hit.
Rojas and Moreno have been suspended from school and the team and will probably be banned from participating in sports. They face possible assault charges. Watts was not seriously injured, but he hired a lawyer, Alan Goldberg, who said: “This wasn’t passion turning into violence. This was premeditated crime.”
The suspended players have accused Watts of making derogatory racial comments to them and teammates, which Watts has denied ever doing in his 14 years as an official.
The players said assistant coach Mack Breed told them “that guy needs to pay for cheating us” or words to that effect, according to the Northside Independent School District, which is investigating the incident. Breed has been placed on paid leave.
“If that did happen, he let the emotions get the best of him,” district athletic director Stan Laing said. “As educators, we’ve got to take this opportunity to teach our young people two wrongs don’t make a right.”
The game had been getting out of control, with two Jay players ejected earlier for throwing punches and arguing with an official.
“The only thing our kids really have is our coaches. That’s where the leadership starts,” said Gil Garza of the state’s interscholastic athletic league, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
Coaches and officials should have defused tensions before the players lost what limited impulse control teenagers tend to possess.
Sports officials should be treated as saints for enduring abuse in pressure-packed situations while trying to be perfectionists in games of millimeters and milliseconds being played at mega miles per hour.
Yet they are treated like dirt. Remember when Dennis Rodman head-butted a ref? Or when Roberto Alomar spat on umpire John Hirschbeck after a called third strike, then cruelly blamed Hirschbeck because the ump was “bitter” about the death of his son?
Local incidents include one last year when a ref was beaten up and bitten by coaches and parents after a youth league football game. And in recent years two rec league soccer officials died — one in Utah after issuing a yellow card, one in Michigan after issuing a red card — when the penalized players punched them in the head.
Misplaced hatred of officials poisons the atmosphere of sports. After what happened in Texas, it’s time to renew respect for the brave human beings who take the field wearing a whistle with the noble goal of getting it right.