High-school football players say coach ordered hits on referee

Two weeks ago, two Texas high-school football players decked a game official in a contest that had already seen one ejection, launching a viral video of the attack and a national controversy. At the time, plenty of people wondered whether the coaching staff had been involved in retaliation over the earlier ejection and other calls, while the players claimed that they attacked the official over supposed racial rslurs he had made (which the official strenuously denies). Today, the two players tell ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that their coach ordered the Code Red:

Video of the incident drew national attention after the footage showed the boys going out of their way to collide with referee Robert Watts, whose back was to the players at the time. The teens, playing for John Jay High School in the San Antonio area, say they were following orders from an assistant coach, Mack Breed.

“You put your trust into this grown-up, this guardian, your coach, who’s been there for me. … I trust him. I did what I was told,” Moreno said.

The coach pulled Moreno and another player aside and told them, “You need to hit the ref. He needs to pay the price,” Moreno said.

Moreno said he then relayed the message to Rojas. The other player didn’t follow through with the plan to target referee Robert Watts, but Moreno and Rojas did — allegedly because the referee had missed calls and used racial slurs during the game, the players said.

Watts, through his attorney, has denied the racial slur accusation to ABC News.

The two are still claiming that Watts used racial slurs, and one of the players said, “I wouldn’t lie about that.” Well, if you can’t take the word of a couple of guys who would take a cheap shot on a defenseless person from behind and while he’s down on the ground, who can you trust? Even if Watts did use that kind of language — and he’s denying it consistently, with his attorney accusing the two players and the school of blaming the victim — that in no way justifies their attack on the referee, especially from behind and while on the ground. That’s battery, and given the use of the helmets, perhaps aggravated battery, whether it happens on a football field or not.

That puts Breed in a tough place, too. If he ordered the hit on the referee, then we have a conspiracy to commit battery, and there’s not much doubt how that will look to a Texas jury. Breed, who has been on leave since the game, will now have to call the two players liars as well in order to avoid potential criminal charges. The attorney for the players will want to cut a deal to keep his clients out of jail, and that may mean Breed will take most of the fall on this attack, if charged and eventually convicted.

So what should happen to the players? Their attorney says they’ve suffered enough by having a three-day suspension, a week of alternative school, and being kicked off the football team. I suspect that the school will have a much different take on that question.