November 19, 2013

High school football player accused of assault with helmet during game

Colin W. Byrd, 17, of Kansas City allegedly twisted the helmet off a Winnetonka High School player during a third-quarter play that ended with the two players tumbling out of bounds, court records said. Byrd then hit his opponent in the head with the helmet, records said.

In a rare move, prosecutors have filed a criminal charge against a Platte County High School football player for an alleged attack on an opponent during a game.

Colin W. Byrd, 17, of Kansas City allegedly twisted the helmet off a Winnetonka High School player during a third-quarter play that ended with the two players tumbling out of bounds, court records said. Byrd then hit his opponent in the head with the helmet, the records say.

Prosecutors charged Byrd with misdemeanor assault.

The 17-year-old victim still has concussion symptoms, including nausea and memory loss, that have kept him from returning to school since the Oct. 18 game, Platte County prosecutors said. He did not play the rest of the season, which ended Nov. 11.

“I don’t believe what happened on that football field that night was football,” said Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd. “What happened there was not part of the play . It is our allegation that it went beyond the game of football and became an assault.”

This marks the first time his office has filed criminal charges in an incident that occurred during a sporting event, Zahnd said.

It also appears to be a rare occurrence in Missouri high school sports, a statewide high school activities group official said. And Zahnd said he was aware of only one similar case, from Pennsylvania, being charged nationwide.

Byrd’s attorney could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Byrd is scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 7.

A game official ejected Byrd and penalized his team for the conduct. The official told investigators he had never seen anything like it in more than 20 years of officiating football games, Zahnd said.

A North Kansas City School District assistant superintendent who witnessed the play up close from along the sideline told authorities that it appeared Byrd intentionally hit the victim, according to court records, which quote the district official as saying, “Byrd appeared to be angry and frustrated.”

The play happened during a third-quarter Winnetonka Griffins punt return for a touchdown that was called back on a separate penalty with the Griffins leading 42-12. As the Winnetonka ball carrier approached the end zone, another Winnetonka player cut in front of Byrd to block him, though Byrd trailed the ball carrier by at least 10 yards at the time.

When detectives questioned Byrd, he said the helmet “just kind of ended up in my right hand” and that he didn’t hit the victim with the helmet intentionally, according to court records.

“I just kind of threw it down behind me,” the document quotes him as saying.

Game footage obtained by detectives shows Byrd “bringing the helmet behind his back and then (he) swings the helmet forward,” according to the court document. Though bystanders mostly block the camera’s view of the victim, it appears he was on the ground when struck, the document says.

(The incident starts around the 1:30:41 mark in the video below)

“Clearly players may jaw with one another and there may even be late hits and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and unnecessary roughness penalties, but the vast majority of them are never going to be viewed as criminal,” Zahnd said. “But this situation, we believed that it rose to the level of criminal conduct.”

If convicted, Byrd could receive probation or be sentenced to as long as a year in the county jail, Zahnd said.

Platte County football coach Bill Utz declined to comment.

Winnetonka coach Sterling Edwards said Tuesday he did not see the play. A team trainer tended to the injured player and did not let him return to the game, Edwards said.

Online video of the game shows the victim holding a hand to his head as trainers talk to him on the bench. No ambulance was called, Edwards said.

The victim and his father reported the incident to Platte City police four days after the game.

While such incidents are unusual, there have been an increasing number of assault cases where players attack other players in ways that go beyond game competition, said Lee E. Green, a lawyer and sports law professor at Baker University who consults for the National Federation of State High School Associations and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

“Part of it, too, is the increasing focus on sports in our culture and the idea of sports being life at full volume,” Green said. “I think that somehow players have gotten the message that this type of behavior is acceptable.”

It is important that coaches instill sportsmanship among high school athletes, he said.

Interactions on high school athletic fields that result in criminal charges are rare in Missouri, said Jason West, spokesman for the Missouri High School Activities Association.

Yet the Platte City incident was one of two reported recently, he said, adding that they were the only two cases of which he had ever heard.

On Saturday, a soccer player from John F. Kennedy Catholic High School in Manchester, Mo., near St. Louis, allegedly punched a player from the opposing team, Southern Boone High School, after both players tumbled to the ground during a play.

The officials immediately ejected the alleged offender; the victim stayed in the game, West said. The victim’s parents later filed a police report for assault, he said.

“With any competition, there are emotions and passion,” West said. “One of the keys is to be able to perform in the game and control that emotion.”

Student athletes ejected from Missouri games are reported to the state association and suspended for a subsequent game. The number of ejections has fallen in recent years, West said. He thinks preventative officiating and specific coaching instructions have helped players make better decisions.

Any student who is the subject of a criminal investigation, on the field or off, is ineligible to play under the association’s bylaws until the charges are dropped or the student has completed specific terms of any verdict, including paying restitution or performing community service.

Schools can apply additional rules or penalties, West said.

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