Racism Charges, Conflicting Accounts Mark Saga of Punched Referee
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ This much is certain: One Friday afternoon, minutes after the second-half kickoff, an enraged high school linebacker drew back his closed fist and punched a referee in the face.
Senior Kumasi Simmons, 17, an honor student with dreams of becoming a pediatrician, is black. Kenneth Smotrys, 34, a Certified Public Accountant who’s been a referee for 12 years without a reported complaint, is white.
Little else in this story is black and white, but virtually every aspect is tainted by accusations of racism.
Thanks to a spectator videotape, the punch has been seen around the country. An otherwise obscure game between Compton’s Centennial High School and Beverly Hills High became another national story about race relations in Los Angeles County.
Supporters of Simmons are tapping some of the most notorious cases that heightened tension in this multi-ethnic city: O.J. Simpson, Mark Fuhrman, Rodney King.
Simmons says Smotrys called him ``a nigger,″ which Smotrys denies. Another Centennial player, Vincent Brooks, 16, says Smotrys called him the same name during the same game. Smotrys denies that, too.
Each side is threatening to sue the other, but so far has not. Instead, the case is being tried in the media, with each side calling the other racist and liars.
Smotrys’ attorney asserts the incident has turned into a West Coast version of the 1987 Tawana Brawley case in New York. Brawley, a black teen-ager, claimed at least six white men kidnapped and raped her but a grand jury found she made the story up.
``They were trying to create enough smoke to get Simmons out of trouble,″ lawyer David DiJulio said. ``And it just got away from them. And Mr. Smotrys has been raped in the process.″
Smotrys declined an interview request from The Associated Press.
The California Interscholastic Federation and the Compton Unified School District are investigating the attack. Their findings are expected next week.
Figuring in those investigations are two videotapes _ one shot in the stands by a spectator, the other from the press box.
Simmons is clearly seen punching Smotrys, but both tapes are shot from a distance. With the constant movement of a football game, other views of Smotrys and Simmons are blocked. And sounds from the field are not audible.
Attorney Leo James Terrell, who represents Brooks and Simmons, says both teen-agers are being vilified for daring to tell the truth. But, according to a Beverly Hills police report, Simmons never mentioned the epithet to investigating officers. Brooks did.
Terrell did not return four messages from the AP. He has publicly said his clients will not speak to reporters.
Instead, Simmons’ uncle, Omar Bradley, has stepped forward. A state Assembly candidate, he is mayor of Compton and head football coach at Centennial.
At a series of angry news conferences, Bradley, 36, has accused the football federation, the media and school officials of ``institutionalized racism.″
Bradley was coaching the day his nephew punched Smotrys, and his accounts of the game are sometimes contradictory. Eight unsigned statements written by Centennial players at the behest of the school’s principal also offer conflicting versions.
In one, a student wrote ``No″ under the question: ``Are you aware of any incident where players were verbally or physically assaulted by a football official?″
Bradley, during a news conference last Friday, said the students’ statements backed up his nephew. ``I believe the children of Compton,″ he said.
Asked if he believed his nephew, Bradley told the AP in a phone interview this week: ``Whether I believe him or not is immaterial.″
According to school and league officials who have interviewed the game’s five referees and players from both sides, the match at Beverly Hills High School was uneventful for two quarters.
Andre Farkas of Beverly Hills caught the second-half kickoff and ran the ball to his 30-yard line, where Simmons tackled him. After the whistle, Simmons pushed his opponent’s helmet into the ground while getting up.
Smotrys ran to the pileup, colliding with Brooks, on the way. Brooks later told police that Smotrys called him ``nigger″ and pushed him to the ground.
The referee told federation officials he yelled at Simmons. ``I told him to step out of the way and not to do that again,″ Smotrys told the Los Angeles Times.
In his one interview, with the syndicated show ``American Journal,″ Simmons said of Smotrys:
``He called my number, `42, 42, You’re out of here, nigger.‴
Farkas, who was standing between the referee and Simmons, told investigators he heard no epithets. Beverly Hills has 16 black players and a black coach. None heard Smotrys say the word during the game, school officials said.
``There was nothing,″ said Beverly Hills principal Ben Bushman. ``Absolutely. None of our coaches or players heard anything like that.″
No penalty was called and both teams went back to their huddles.
As Smotrys stood in the Beverly Hills backfield, Simmons walked past the line of scrimmage, started running and gave the ref a right cross to the head.
Police were called. The game was stopped. Centennial forfeited. A misdemeanor battery charge was filed against Simmons.
Smotrys has been suspended from officiating, pending the federation investigation. Simmons is banned from federation sports for the rest of his high school career. He was expelled from Centennial and now attends a suburban school.