Protection may be coming for referees with newly filed bill

Back in 2015, Marble Falls High School center snapped the football to its quarterback intent on running out the game clock to secure its 15-9 victory.

Two members of the John Jay High School team had other ideas. As the ball was snapped, a safety from John Jay slammed an unsuspecting official, Robert Watts, to the ground. Watts’ head snapped back and another John Jay football player lowered his shoulder into the official as he crumpled to the ground.

The story made national news, because of the severity of the attack. These were high school kids assaulting an official during a football game, after all.

“This is 100% unacceptable behavior no matter what happens,” said Terry Franks, chief of staff for Texas Representative Jason Isaac. “You can’t take this kind of action.”

Victor Rojas and Michael Moreno were suspended for the rest of the 2015-16 season. Rojas, a sophomore, was later reinstated and allowed to participate in athletic events after his suspension was complete.

Watts, who lives in Buda, reached out to his local representatives to begin a conversation about the importance of protecting officials. Isaac, presiding over Texas House District 45, and his staff brought in the University Interscholastic League (UIL) to continue the discourse.

Thus, House Bill 2768 was born. The legislation – known as the Referee Protection Bill – details a plan allowing UIL to permanently ban an athlete from high school sports.

Prior to this proposal, Franks said UIL didn’t have the authority to institute a punishment of this nature.

“They hadn’t seen anything like this … When you talk to some of the national referee associations, the numbers are getting pretty high on these things. That was alarming to us, so we wanted UIL to have a tool that they can use to say ‘hey if someone does something so egregious that you can tell’ then they don’t need to play in high school sports anymore.” Terry Franks, chief of staff for Texas Representative Jason Isaac

Franks said short-term suspensions in situations similar to the John Jay case could induce problematic behavior in the future.

“People say ‘boys will be boys’ and that was off-putting to me and Representative (Jason) Isaac,” Franks said. “A very serious lesson needs to be learned here. Once you cross a barrier like that you’re going down a real slippery path that we may not be able to come back from.”

Hays athletic coordinator Neal La Hue said he supports the bill. He added that schools should have a policy to deal with these situations if they arise, too.

“I think it’s meant to keep people safe and as far as the punishment phase I don’t have a comment on that,” La Hue said. “It’s fine. You need to teach kids that it’s a game. It’s not life or death and you don’t have to take it out on the referees.”

The bill, filed March 2, would take affect Sept. 1, 2017 if it passes through the Texas Legislature.

“I think the Referees Protection bill has a pretty good shot of getting through,” Franks said. “I think the issue is very near and dear to people’s hearts. You can’t imagine a 16- or 17-year-old young adult doing something like that and not face a serious repercussion.”

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