Bud Kennedy

In Texas, there’s no hitting the ref — but wait

A San Antonio John Jay High School football player, top right, appears to intentionally hit umpire Robert Watts during a game Friday at Marble Falls.
A San Antonio John Jay High School football player, top right, appears to intentionally hit umpire Robert Watts during a game Friday at Marble Falls. YouTube.com

Before you say there oughta be a law against hitting a football official, there is.

But for some reason, Texas law doesn’t worry much about players hitting refs. We crack down only on people who aren’t coaching or playing.

The Burnet County attorney’s office will decide whether the San Antonio high school football players seen hitting an umpire Friday night in Marble Falls will face a misdemeanor assault charge.

But the way Texas law is written, any charge probably would amount to only a Class C misdemeanor.

Yes, our laws impose a $2,000 fine for “assaulting a sports participant.”

Assault … by a person who is not a sports participant against a person the actor knows is a sports participant either: (A) while the participant is performing … or (B) in retaliation

Texas Penal Code, Chapter 22

But — remember, this is the Texas Legislature at work — that law applies only to a non-participant.

Lawmakers considered a bill this year to raise the penalty and include assaults by other participants. The House passed a weaker version after debating whether it covered hockey fights, but the bill stalled in the Senate.

“It’s an obvious loophole, and we tried to remove it,” said Michael Fitch, director of the Richardson-based Texas Association of Sports Officials.

“We’re always more concerned about fans. But we’ve all seen youth-league coaches get out of hand.”

The bill wouldn’t have changed anything about the Marble Falls case. Any tougher penalty would have started for players at age 19, and even the author, state Rep. Ed Thompson, R-Pearland, said specifically that lawmakers don’t “want a kid winding up with something on his record.”

But Thompson, a 40-year referee, said he’d never seen an official struck the way the John Jay High School players plowed into 14-year official Robert Watts of Austin.

A bill to better protect officials failed after the Texas House debated whether it included hockey fights.

“I’ve been cursed, sure, and I’ve left a game where I felt danger going to my car,” Thompson said. “But nothing like that.”

University Interscholastic League officials will meet Wednesday in Round Rock to hear a report and consider punishing Jay. The school district has suspended an assistant coach accused by the players of encouraging them.

Prosecutors would have a strong case for a Class C misdemeanor against either teenager. But the question is whether Burnet County’s resources would be wisely spent on the case and whether high school football players’ misconduct on the field late in an emotional game should be punished with a lifelong criminal record.

Who knows? The Jay players might grow up to become officials.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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