For Pete's Sake

Sheriff’s department investigating Kentucky fans who threatened referee John Higgins

In this March 26, 2017 file photo, Kentucky head coach John Calipari argued a call with referee John Higgins in the first half of the South Regional final game against North Carolina.
In this March 26, 2017 file photo, Kentucky head coach John Calipari argued a call with referee John Higgins in the first half of the South Regional final game against North Carolina. The Associated Press

The NCAA Tournament is over and most fans have turned their attention to next season. There will be recruiting speculation, announcements of players going pro and probably a few coaching moves.

For basketball official John Higgins, he’s trying to repair the image of his roofing company, while also following a Sarpy County (Neb.) Sheriff’s Department investigation.

This is all because Higgins worked the Elite Eight game between North Carolina and Kentucky on March 26. The Tar Heels won 75-73, and Wildcats fans were so furious at the officials that they apparently took aim at Higgins.

According to the Associated Press, the Sheriff’s Department said Higgins’ roofing company, Weatherguard, Inc., which is based near Omaha, received about 3,000 harassing emails and an unknown number of phone calls, some including death threats. Higgins told the Omaha World-Herald that his company started hearing from people 30 minutes after the game. By Monday, some people were calling 40 or 50 times, and the FBI was notified.

In the Associated Press story, Matt Barrall of the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Department said he was working full-time on the case.

“We are taking this very, very — extremely — seriously,” Barrall told the Associated Press. “Some people might say, ‘Oh, it’s just a basketball game.’ But what if some mentally unstable person decides this is the way to make a name for himself?”

In the World-Herald story, Higgins said his company’s rating on its Facebook page dropped from 4.8 to 1.2, and that false reports were filed with the Better Business Bureau, using names such as Adolph Rupp and Calipari John.

A message on the Weatherguard website addresses the harassment:

You may have read online or heard in the media about how our Facebook page, Google reviews and other internet outlets were the target of online bullying and false defamatory comments.

Many of these comments, phone calls and false accusations came from disappointed basketball fans following a recent basketball game that John Higgins, our president, officiated. These false accusations and inflammatory comments went beyond acceptable levels, and potentially damaged the reputation of Weatherguard Inc. Our employees remain committed to providing excellent service to each of our customers.

These recent comments were not from Weatherguard customers, and we want to thank our many satisfied customers for their support, reviews and referrals.

An interesting thing to note, particularly for Kentucky fans, is that Higgins was chosen worked the Final Four game between Gonzaga and South Carolina.

“My job is to be fair to both teams, be professional and demand sportsmanship,” Higgins told the World-Herald. “That’s what we’re supposed to do as officials. That’s what I try to do every time I get out.”

Barrall told the Associated Press that a video, which is now removed, showing contact information for Higgins was posted on fan websites and likely led to the problems.

“There is a lot of mass anonymity once something like that goes viral,” Barrall told the AP. “People that on their own wouldn’t do something, their social values change when a lot of other people do it, and they decide to join in. This is the 21st-century version of a mob mentality because of social media.”

Barrall told the Associated Press that the Sheriff’s office may ask for subpoenas to be issued for phone and other records of those suspected of making threats that are deemed terroristic.

“At the end of the day, it’s a basketball game,” Higgins told the World-Herald. “It does not affect anyone’s life.”

Unfortunately, in this case, it did affect Higgins’ life.

Pete Grathoff: 816-234-4330, @pgrathoff

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