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Since I began covering sports in 2002 for my high school newspaper in Rowan County, I have regularly worked with athletic officials at the collegiate and high school levels.
It might just be in passing or it might be to ask an off-the-record question and I feel like I’ve had a good relationship when I’ve interacted with these officials.
I find many are friendly and helpful, even humorous.
At the Jefferson County Invitational volleyball tournament last month in Louisville, one referee brought bubble gum for the media and score keeper. The referee even playfully chided me for turning down the free gum.
I had a different experience with an official on Oct. 24 at the boys’ soccer sub-sectional match between St. Xavier and Oldham County at Oldham County High School.
The Colonels were penalized for a pass-back late in the second half — a rare call for a high school game. The rule was unfamiliar to me. As I have done many times before, I waited until both teams shook hands and went to their team huddles before I approached the officials, who were chatting off the field, for a clarification of the call.
Two officials declined to comment. But a man in a black KHSAA windbreaker and black KHSAA hat standing with the referees forcefully put his hands up, told me to walk away and to do my job and write my story. While saying this inches from my face, he pushed off against my chest with his fists in front of his chest and threatened to call the police if I didn’t walk away.
I was stunned. I was also embarrassed. I found it intimidating and I worry that this could happen to a parent or coach.
After discussing the situation with my editor, I began to gather information to find out if this is acceptable behavior for officials.
I called KHSAA sports information director Elden May, who confirmed that my questions to the officials were acceptable and apologized for the incident.
KHSAA general counsel Chad Collins explained the rule in question to me by phone and also apologized for the incident.
Next, I called Louisville soccer assigning secretary Estelle Quisenberry, who hires referees for regular season games in Oldham County. She said that the referees traveled from northern Kentucky. She attended the game but doesn’t know for certain who the man is that acted inappropriately to me. Quisenberry said she left immediately following the final whistle and didn’t see the altercation.
I allowed more than two weeks to pass and today I still find myself stunned. Our staff members have consulted attorneys for the Kentucky Press Association, as well as the editorial director for our parent company, LCNI, to find out if our colleagues have experienced similar encounters. To our knowledge, this was a rare incident.
I’m awaiting documentation from a records request I filed with KHSAA to find out the names of the officials.
KHSAA commissioner Julian Tackett said Nov. 7 that officials are instructed not to talk to media, but that the physical contact I described crosses the line. Tackett said there are several disciplinary actions for KHSAA to take against officials who decide to “become a jerk.” He said he will contact the officials who worked the game to get to the bottom of the situation.
As a member of the press covering a public event at a public place, I have the right to gather information needed in order to do my job appropriately. The same should apply for any other sports reporter or journalist.
I also have the right to press charges for physically threatening contact, although that isn’t an avenue I plan to explore.
I simply want an apology.
The Oldham Era has sent an official letter of complaint to KHSAA to document the situation. I urge KHSAA to address the official’s inappropriate actions and hopefully prevent this from happening again.
This man’s conduct was unacceptable, out of bounds and unsportsmanlike. Whether you’re a journalist, coach, parent or a fan, no one should have to fear an official.
The views in this column are those of the writer.