By Joseph Talarico*

October 16, 2015

Football is a violent sport. Every single person who has ever played, coached, or watched a game knows this to be true. However, from sideline to sideline there is a line between acceptable violence seen on an average play and violence “caused by conduct not within the rules.”[1] Unfortunately, on September 4, 2015, that line was crossed.

On that day, during a Texas high school football game between John Jay High School and Marble Falls High School, two John Jay players blindsided a referee under the orders of assistant coach, Mack Breed. Video of the incident shows Victor Rojas, fifteen years old, spearing referee Robert Watts in the back and knocking him to the ground, followed by Michael Moreno, seventeen years old, diving onto the defenseless referee.[2] Fortunately, vicious acts in sports are uncommon; yet, when these incidents do occur, players face more than mere ejection from game or suspension from the team (as was the case for both players), they also face legal consequences.[3]

First and foremost, civil action is inevitable in such an incident and in fact is already underway.[4] Rojas and Moreno face possible torts such as battery and if found liable, they would have to pay compensatory damages, covering any medical and loss of work costs, and potentially punitive damages—due to the malicious nature of the attack. However, because litigation is all about the money, Watt will likely sue both assistant coach Breed and his employer John Jay High School under the doctrine of respondeat superior – which holds “an employer or principal liable for the employee’s or agent’s wrongful acts committed within the scope of the employment or agency.”[5] The issue then becomes whether coach Breed and the players were really acting within the scope of their “employment.” The ensuing litigation will be interesting to monitor, assuming a settlement is not reached before then.[6]

Regardless of the litigious aspect of this incident, there are a couple societal issues that complicate the matter further. First, there are numerous reports from other John Jay players, who remain unnamed for purposes of ongoing litigation, that Watts repeatedly used racial slurs during the game. Allegedly, Watts called players the “N-word” and told a Spanish-speaking player, “We’re in America, speak English.”[7] Also, coaches claimed Watts ejected players only from John Jay, a predominantly minority team, and not players form Marble Falls, a predominantly white team. If these allegations are true, how should the players’ actions be viewed? Are their actions justified?[8]

Second, assistant coach Mack Breed, allegedly ordered told players Watts should “pay” for discriminating against and cheating their team, and consequently, he ordered Rojas and Moreno to “take out” the referee.[9] At issue here is the power dynamic a coach can have over the players, especially one like Breed, whose players reportedly looked up to him as a “father figure.”[10] Thus, if a coach has such power over his or her players, another question becomes whether the players’ liability diminishes or changes at all.[11]

Yet, at the end of the day, there is no place for this behavior on the playing field. Football is inherently a violent sport, but there are boundaries that must never be crossed. Attacking a referee is one of those boundaries. Any racism exhibited by Robert Watts is unspeakable, infuriating, and morally wrong, however it does not justify violence as the answer. With racism at a forefront in our society today, the fact racial slurs may have been a part of the incident complicates the issue, but does not excuse the players’ actions.

Although it is easy for me to say violence is not the answer, if we are going to move forward as a nation and create positive change, there has to be a better response than violence. Ambiguity still surrounds the fateful incident, but down the road, when we recall this incident, we will look back and remember failures on every level: failure of a coach to instruct his players to not succumb to instigation and strive to be better; failure of a referee, who is supposed to represent fairness throughout the game, to treat our youth with respect and dignity; failure of players to do what was right, regardless of what they were told, and simply play the game they love; and most of all, failure on all parties involved to respect and honor the game of football. Teamwork, hard work, and integrity should be the values learned from football, not retaliation, vendetta, and payback. High school football is the game we love played at its purest form. This incident is the furthest thing from that image, which is the greatest failure of all.


 

*Staff Writer, Villanova University Sports and Entertainment Law Society Blog; J.D. Candidate, May 2018, Villanova University School of Law.

[1] Hackbart v. Cincinnati Bengals, Inc., 601 F.2d 516, 520 (10th Cir. 1979).

[2] See Greg Gibson, San Antonio Texas Football Players Target Ref Because of a Bad Call, YouTube (Sept. 5, 2015), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNCrs63JeuM.

[3] Since the incident, both players were dismissed from the football team and suspended from John Jay High School; they are now attending a different high school, Northside Alternative High School.

[4] See John Barr, Assistant Mack Breed Told John Jay Principal He Ordered Ref Hits in Anger, ESPN.com (Sept. 23, 2015), http://espn.go.com/espn/otl/story/_/id/13721638/john-jay-assistant-mack-breed-admitted-ordering-players-hit-referee-response-alleged-racist-comments-bad-calls.

[5] Black’s Law Dictionary, “Respondeat Superior.”

[6] Although no criminal charges have been brought against the players or the coach, state legislatures have passed statutes to protect participants in a game from intentional acts of violence by other players, coaches, referees, or fans. Oklahoma’s statute on the matter states: “Every person who, without justifiable or excusable cause and with intent to do bodily harm, commits any assault, battery, assault and battery upon the person of a referee, umpire, timekeeper, coach, player, participant, official . . . is punishable by imprisonment . . . or by a fine . . . or by both such fine and imprisonment.” Torts in Sports – “I’ll See You In Court!”

[7] Eliot McLaughlin, Texas Coach Accused of Ordering Players to Hit Coach, CNN.com (Sept. 24, 2015), http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/24/us/high-school-players-hit-texas-football-official-hearing.

[8] “Courts are clearly reluctant to impose liability for epithets, racial or otherwise, in the absence of repetition or aggravating factors. On the other hand, racial epithets and the like have surely played a part in liability, and may have been decisive, when the defendant’s conduct is also arguably outrageous for other reasons as well.” Dan B. Dobbs, Paul T. Hayden and Ellen M. Bublick, The Law of Torts § 387 (2d ed.).

[9] John Barr, John Jay Assistant Coach Mack Breed, Accused of Ordering Hit on Ref, Resigns, ESPN.com (Sept. 24, 2015), http://espn.go.com/espn/otl/story/_/id/13729429/john-jay-assistant-coach-mack-breed-ordered-players-hit-ref-resigns.

[10] Tod Robberson, Criminal Investigation Merited for John Jay Assistant Coach in Referee’s Assault, Dallasnews.com (Sept. 23, 2015), http://dallasmorningviewsblog.dallasnews.com/2015/09/criminal-investigation-merited-for-john-jay-assistant-coach-in-referees-assault.html/.

[11] Coaches may be held to heightened duty of care in regards to players, especially when dealing with amateur athletes. Mack Breed potentially faces negligence claims and may be held liable for his players’ actions. See Greg Roberts, A Special Relationship – A Coach’s Duty in Sports Law, (July 18, 2014), http://track.coachesdirectory.com/article/a-special-relationship–a-coachs-duty-in-sports-law-article.html.

 

 

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