By Mike Capshaw
One says he did. He says he didn't, and he has the video to prove it.
An altercation at a semi-professional football game on Saturday has resulted in a head coach's resignation and a football team changing names.
It may even lead to an arrest.
Late in the first half of the Levy County Raiders' game against the Orlando Phantoms in Williston, Raiders coach Ron Fisher was ejected after receiving a second unsportsmanlike penalty for arguing with officials. The crew chief, Gary Merlino, alleged he then was "shoved" by Fisher. At the urging of United Football Federation officials, Merlino planned to press charges with the Williston Police Department on Tuesday.
In Florida, battery of a sports official could be filed as a third degree felony, according to state statute 784.081. The offense is reclassified, or enhanced, when it involves a sports official. If a complaint is filed by Merlino, the exact charge will be at the state attorney general's discretion.
As with most altercations, there are two sides to what unfolded on Saturday night at the Williston Youth Athletic Association Field.
Merlino, who has been officiating football on all levels since 1986, was detailed in his assessment of the on-field altercation. He said Fisher became "animated" when the Raiders were whistled for two fouls on the same play, one for an illegal formation and the other for pass interference.
After "refusing to settle down," Fisher was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct by the line judge. Merlino said he was then forced to call an official's timeout to "restore decorum," because "trash talking had escalated to an on-the-field altercation."
Apparently, decorum wasn't immediately restored.
"(Fisher) stepped out onto the field and started shouting about how our crew was not calling things both ways and that we better start getting Orlando in check," Merlino said. "I told the coach that he needed to return to the sideline and shut up. He refused and told me that I didn't scare him and that I might as well penalize him as he wasn't going to shut up."
Merlino said Fisher came farther onto the field and eventually was tagged with a second unsportsmanlike penalty, resulting in Fisher's ejection from the game.
"At that time, (Fisher) stormed out on the field and got in my face, saying that he was refusing to pay myself nor the rest of my crew," Merlino said.
League rules state that officials must be paid before the start of the second half to continue calling a game, which Merlino informed Fisher about.
"(Fisher) again stated that he was not afraid of me and after calling me several names such as (expletive) and a few other choice words, he shoved me," Merlino said. "At which time, I exclaimed, 'Did you just shove me? Did you just shove an official?'
"At that point, he was restrained by other Levy County players and taken to the sideline where he collapsed and had to have medical attention."
Fisher, who was taken by ambulance to the hospital and released four hours later, didn't dispute most of the facts Merlino presented. However, Fisher's version of what unfolded after the first unsportsmanlike penalty was vastly different.
"I went to the (Merlino) to ask him (about the penalty) and he chest butted me and then spit in my face," Fisher said. "(Merlino) said, 'Get the (expletive) off my field. Get away from him,' so that's when the team separated us."
Fisher, who said he promptly resigned as head coach of the Raiders, said he has proof to back up his side of the story, which he likely will need if charges are filed.
"I've got it on film," Fisher said. "I've got all that on film. When I walked out there, he chest butted me and said to get the hell away from him and get off his (expletive) field.
"I don't know where it goes from here, but it's typical."
After Fisher was taken to the hospital, the first half of the game was completed.
Merlino said his crew, most of whom had driven up from the Tampa Bay area, still hadn't been paid for the game. Merlino said to "hold the payroll hostage" because the guy holding the check didn't agree with their calls was a "travesty." Because of Saturday's incident, teams must now pay officiating crews before games.
"It was like, if I don't start calling it right, then none of us are going to get paid," Merlino said.
Of course, it wasn't the first time in his 25 years of officiating that Merlino has had a disagreement with a coach.
"I've had coaches lose their cool. I've had coaches threaten to never use our association again. They're all idle threats," Merlino said. "This guy stepped over the line in more ways than one, including physically attacking myself.
"Every coach is always going to cry that they didn't get the call ... It happens. But to go crazy like he did, that was completely out of line and just shows his disrespect to officials in general."
Merlino said he has the league's approval on pressing charges against Fisher. At presstime, no charges had been filed, although Merlino planned to fax his official report of the events that took place that night to the Williston Police Department on Tuesday.
"The league wants to send a clear message that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated and that officials will be protected," Merlino said.
A member of the UFF's board of directors, who declined to go on the record, said the Levy County Raiders have officially been removed from the league based on the actions "of its coach, not the players."
In a move meant to not punish the players, the league official said a team from Levy County has been "renegotiated" and will be called the Williston Titans.
The Titans were one of three original teams from the county that merged to form the Levy County Raiders. They'll be coached by Mark Marrazo, a former Raiders' assistant.
"The Raiders will never be the same without Ron Fisher," Marrazo said, adding that Fisher resigned on his own accord. "He touched the lives of more than 70 guys through this program and he will be deeply missed.
"It was an unfortunate situation that happened. He lost his cool. Everybody does. He just went a little too far this time."
Marrazo said he has between "30 to 45 guys" that he’s expecting to suit up for the Titans. Players may have to wear the Raiders' colors and jerseys if they cannot find affordable replacements "this late in the season."
"This area has a lot of quality athletes who deserve to be recognized and respected," Marrazo said. "This is pretty much a fresh start for us. We would like to see this program stay afloat for years to come."