Hearing raises more questions in football referee attack investigation

A hearing in Texas regarding the blindside hit of a referee by two high school players raised more questions over whether criminal charges will be pursued.
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ROUND ROCK, Texas — After meting light punishment to John Jay High School football players and coaches for their roles in a vicious blindside of an umpire, Texas sports officials ended a hearing on Thursday unable to answer a central question: What prompted linebacker Victor Rojas and defensive back Michael Moreno to level and spear Robert Watts?

“We’ll probably never know what motivated them,” said Mike Motheral, chair of the University Interscholastic League state executive committee.

That uncertainty, along with a pending criminal investigation, hung over a two-hour hearing that resulted in a disputed finding and meager discipline. The Texas Association of Sports Officials (TASO) announced that a private investigator found no evidence that Watts uttered any racial remarks, despite strong assertions to the contrary from multiple Jay players.

Faced with a possible three-year suspension, Jay defensive backs coach Mack Breed was suspended for the remainder of the year and handed two years probation. He resigned in September. Head coach Gary Gutierrez received two years probation and a reprimand. Moreno, a senior, was given a one-year suspension. Rojas, a sophomore, received an indefinite suspension. Both players have already been assigned to an alternative school for 75 days.

Rojas and Moreno did not appear at the hearing, held inside a Round Rock hotel conference room. But they did appear on Good Morning America last month to offer an explanation: Breed, upset with officials’ calls, player ejections and alleged racist remarks made by Watts, ordered the hit.  

Breed vehemently denied that assertion at Thursday’s hearing, the third since Watts was struck near the end of a Sept. 4 game between Jay and Marble Falls. But Breed admitted saying—“to no one in particular”—and away from his players, “That mother------ needs to pay the price.” If no one heard the comment, and Breed offered no directive, what led Rojas and Moreno to strike Watts?

Breed said he did not know. “I was just as surprised,” he began, “when Victor and Michael hit that referee as anyone else.” At another point during the hearing, Breed said, “I knew it was their emotions toward this one ref that made them hit him.”

His story continues to evolve. After the game, Breed took responsibility for the hit. Later, he reversed himself with a second statement, claiming he wrongly took the blame to protect the players. Which version is true?

At a UIL hearing in September, Jay principal Robert Harris told the UIL he believed Breed’s first statement—that the coach directed the strike on Watts. At Thursday’s hearing, the UIL embraced the second version.

“I believe you,” said committee member James Colbert. “But even though you didn’t tell players to strike the referee, your comments added to the powder keg.”

The YouTube video of the blows has logged more than 11 million views and spawned a national discussion about the combustible mix of race, violence and football. Beneath Friday night lights in a small Texas town, population of 6,128, one school with a predominant Anglo population (Marble Falls) defeated another with a predominant minority population (Jay), 15–9. The game featured 32 penalties (17 against Jay, 15 on Marble Falls) and four ejections (all from Jay). Northside ISD submitted a 200-page report to the UIL. A criminal investigation was launched. A Burnet County prosecutor told SI.com he expects a report next week from Marble Falls police.

Near the end of the game, Rojas unleashed a savage hit on Watts from behind. Moreno then speared Watts as the umpire lay on the ground. The sequence stunned opposing players. “I was trying to go block my guy,” one Marble Falls player said, “and then he hit the ref and then I was just shocked.”

Acrimony between the two teams had been building since Marble Falls defeated Jay, 60–43, in San Antonio last year. When the Watts video emerged, Marble Falls players vented. One from the 2014 team tweeted that Jay players last season “were doing and saying all kinds of trashy, reckless stuff.” A second from last year’s squad told SI.com, “They were definitely dirty.”

As tempers flared and flags flew in this year’s game, the “powder keg” erupted. Players and coaches became furious when officials nullified two Jay touchdowns. Quarterback and safety Moses Reynold (a Texas A&M commit) was penalized twice for unsportsmanlike conduct and ejected. Before leaving the game, he told Breed that Watts had called him the n-word. Breed reported the allegation to Gutierrez.

In the aftermath, multiple players reported hearing racial slurs. One claimed Watts said, “Speak English, this is America.” Watts denied all allegations. “Not only did that not happen,” he said at the UIL hearing, “I never heard anyone speak Spanish on the field.”

Breed strongly supported Reynolds. The former coach explained that he’d known Reynolds for four years and had never heard him make a racial allegation. “I had no reason to doubt the player,” Breed said.

Mike Fitch, executive director of TASO, introduced doubt. He said a private investigator found inconsistencies in the statements of Reynolds and running back Trent Hobdy about alleged racism. Both players told the investigator Watts called them the n-word, and both said they heard Watts use the slur against Reynolds. “Their quotes are very different,” Fitch said “and one of them quotes Robert Watts as even using the f-word. We find it odd that if the f-word was used, that both players would not have reported it. That’s pretty significant.”

Fitch said the Northside ISD investigation yielded only two players who heard racial comments. But two additional players—Moreno and Rojas—claimed they heard slurs on Good Morning America.

In addition, Fitch said, game footage showed Marble Falls players near Watts at the time of the alleged slurs. But no Marble Falls players said they heard racist remarks.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Breed approached Watts and apologized as the two exited the conference room. In a year, Breed can coach again if he completes probation without incident. Watts, who suffered a concussion, says he is still “not well” and uncertain when he will officiate again. Gutierrez will return to the sidelines and Jay football will resume, business as usual, until a prosecutor decides if criminal charges will be pursued.