HUNTSVILLE, Ala.(WHNT) - A post-game brawl between two Alabama high school football coaches that has drawn national headlines is also highlighting a growing concern among local referees.
Officials with the Alabama High School Athletic Association will meet Tuesday in Montgomery to review evidence from the ugly melee that ensued at the conclusion of Friday's Cullman-Walker game in Jasper, Alabama. Video captured by a local television outlet appears to show Walker Head Coach John Holladay punching Cullman Assistant Coach Matt Hopper after the final whistle blew in Cullman's come from behind 13-10 victory. A wild scuffle that included other coaches, players and even some fans quickly followed, with police officers having to pull combatants apart.
One local referee told WHNT News 19 there is only so much an officiating crew can handle, with safety the top priority once players or coaches cross the line on the field.
"It's very alarming, especially to the officials on the field," said David Bell, President of the North Alabama Football Officials Association. "When it first occurs we try to stop things by blowing the whistle, kind of getting between the players or coaches. If that does not stop things, then we back off."
NAFOA policy prevents Bell from commenting on specifics of the brawl, but the long-time referee said he's seen an alarming increase of on-field fighting during his 30-year career, a concern many of his colleagues share. He said there comes a point when officials must put the whistle away and let police badges take over.
"We take it very serious," said Bell. "Before every game we normally discuss how we're to handle it if something like this occurs... We have two officials who look to the sidelines and make sure nobody comes off the sidelines and enters into the fight. If they do, we start recording numbers and colors of jerseys... What we're really concerned about is the crowd becoming involved. A lot of times the crowd will overflow, and that's when they bring things like knives, even guns and things like that."
The AHSAA could levy punishments as stiff as a playoff ban at Tuesday's meeting. Walker Head Coach John Holladay has already been placed on administrative leave by the Jasper City School Board. Officials with the Jasper Police Department said they are looking at the possibility of filing criminal charges.
Cullman High Head Football Coach Mark Britton and Cullman Athletic Director Tim Loveless were not available for comment. Officials with the Cullman School Board told a local newspaper that they were not planning on disciplining coaches and players, who they described as "acting with class and dignity" during the brawl.