It would not surprise the leader of a national officiating organization nor two former top referees if John Higgins does not work a game in Rupp Arena this coming season.
Some Kentucky fans directed death threats at Higgins and and sent a flood of defamatory social media messages to his business after he worked UK’s loss to North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament last spring. He filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Kentucky Sports Radio, its founder Matthew H. Jones and its managing editor Drew Franklin. The suit charges that Jones, Franklin and KSR made public Higgins’ contact information and enticed fans to use it. Jones has said on Twitter that the lawsuit “is frivolous and without any legal merit whatsoever.”
Safety concerns, not any presumed conflict of interest arising from the lawsuit, should weigh heavy in deciding if Higgins works a UK home game, said Barry Mano, founder and president of the National Association of Sports Officials.
“The lawsuit is not against the team,” Mano said Thursday. “I don’t think that in particular is the issue.
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“As a practical matter, I expect John Higgins probably doesn’t do a UK home game this next season. But that would not be unreasonable. If I were the manager of assignments, I might look at that and say, you know what? The smart play is let’s not send him over to Lexington. Doesn’t mean he’s not going to have UK on the road somewhere. But that sounds like pretty sound management.”
Mano said he saw multiple photos of Higgins when he googled Big Blue Nation. When asked what that said to him, he said, “It tells me this has gotten so intertwined that I, as a top administrator of officials, might want to give it some air.”
Mark Whitehead, the coordinator of men’s basketball officials for the Southeastern Conference, referred questions about Higgins to the league office. SEC spokesman Herb Vincent said that league policy prohibits comment on what games referees work.
Don Rutledge, a long-time SEC referee, struck a defiant tone.
“If it were me, I’m not going to back down from anybody,” he said. “And if I work for the SEC, I expect to be assigned wherever they want me to be assigned. And if they assigned me there, I would go back.”
But Rutledge said he would understand if there was reluctance to assign Higgins a game in Rupp Arena this season. “Because they might not want to exacerbate the situation,” he said.
John Clougherty, a referee for 30 years and then supervisor for Atlantic Coast Conference officials for 11 seasons, said that neither the SEC, NCAA nor Higgins would probably want an assignment in Rupp Arena this coming season.
Not working Kentucky home games will not significantly lighten Higgins’ work load, Clougherty said. “John Higgins has all the assignments that he will ever possibly be able to work,” Clougherty said.
On Monday, the day before he filed his lawsuit, Higgins was voted the Naismith College Official of the Year by the Atlanta Tipoff Club. Past winners of the award and conference supervisors of officials vote on the award.
The National Association of Sports Officials plans to award Higgins its Great Call Award in recognition of how Higgins did not lash back at UK fans, Mano said.
Two seasons ago, an issue about a referee’s game assignments arose after Doug Sirmons ejected UK Coach John Calipari within the first four minutes of a game at South Carolina.
Clougherty said he would be reluctant to move Sirmons off a UK game in the near future. To do so, he said, would mean “you’re sending a message. By enforcing the rules (by ejecting Calipari), you can be removed from a game.”
But no matter how hysterical a coach reacts to being ejected (and Calipari acted as if others had to hold him back from fighting Sirmons), the death threats and defamatory messages directed at Higgins raise safety concerns to a much higher level, Mano said.
Of the idea of supporting referees by not changing assignments, Mano said. “Do you back them up by sending them into a potentially incendiary situation just to show you can do it?
“You can do that. I’m just not sure in this particular case in this very first season that I would do that.”