A referee who received death threats after Kentucky’s loss in the NCAA tournament has filed a federal lawsuit against Kentucky Sports Radio; its founder, Matt Jones; and the company’s managing editor, Drew Franklin.
John Higgins, of Nebraska, along with his wife, Carol Higgins, and their roofing and siding company, Weatherguard, filed the suit Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska.
The lawsuit alleges that after Kentucky lost to North Carolina 75-73 during the Elite Eight on March 26, Jones, Franklin and Kentucky Sports Radio published Higgins’ contact information and enticed fans to use it.
The defendants are accused of intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, civil conspiracy and tortious interference with a business relationship or expectancy.
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As a result, the lawsuit says the company “suffered serious business losses,” and the Higginses suffered emotional distress as a result of threats and harassment.
The lawsuit says the incident cost them more than $75,000.
Jones said via Twitter Tuesday afternoon that the lawsuit “is frivolous and without any legal merit whatsoever.”
“We will defend it and expect a favorable result quickly,” he tweeted.
The lawsuit points out that Jones said he did not advocate for fans posting fake negative statements about Higgins and his business, but he still laughingly read them on the air.
Coach John Calipari commented on the officiating in his post-game news conference after Kentucky’s loss in the tournament, saying, “You know, it’s amazing that we were in that game where they practically fouled out my team. Amazing that we had a chance.”
Kentucky had struggled with fouls during the game, which was officiated by Higgins and two other referees. Some starters picked up two fouls, which limited their playing time.
After word spread that Kentucky fans were causing problems for Higgins, UK released a statement saying that “we encourage our fans to demonstrate good sportsmanship to everyone and discourage any other kind of behavior.”
Calipari tweeted, “...I always brag that we have the classiest fans in the country. Let’s make sure we remain that way even after a tough loss.”
In the two days after Kentucky’s loss, Higgins’ office received 3,000 phone calls, most of which were from Kentucky area codes, and the business’ voicemail system crashed, according to the lawsuit.
The business was deluged with negative online reviews, and fake reports were filed with the Better Business Bureau against Weatherguard under the names Calipari John and Adolph Rupp.
The lawsuit says the company had to take its Facebook page down because of 700 “false posts.”
And the family had to cancel their home telephone service because of death threats, the lawsuit says.
The suit claims that threats included statements such as “You’re gonna pay, buddy,” and “You should put a gun in your mouth and blow your own frickin’ brains out.”
The lawsuit says that the National Association of Sports Officials planned to honor Higgins with the Great Call Award in recognition of his “professionalism under extremely difficult circumstances” at a meeting in Louisville in August, but organizers finally advised him not to come because of “lack of security at the event,” the lawsuit states.
Higgins has been refereeing men’s basketball games for the NCAA since 1988, and, according to the suit has reffed eight Final Four games and the championship games in 2013 and 2016.
He was a well-known figure before the Kentucky-UNC game. A Sports Illustrated profile in January 2016 called him “the most recognizable referee in college basketball.”
“Ideally, the fans of the losing team would clinically analyze the game and hope for a better day tomorrow (or next season),” the lawsuit states. “Realistically, some, instead, inappropriately blame and ridicule the collegiate players. Others choose to excoriate the referees. A critique or two, with lively language, is to be expected. Death threats and defamatory messages in the thousands that lead to a serious disruption in a referee’s business are not to be expected, are tortious, and are to be met with the full force of the civil action and the penalties awarded thereunder.”