MIAMI (CBS4) – On a recent Friday afternoon, a group of high school coaches and athletic directors gathered to decide the fate of Jonathan Brown, a Miami Coral Park High School junior.
“It could be a criminal case if the state attorney’s office decided to take this up,” noted an official from the Florida High School Athletic Association, the governing board for all high school sports in the state
“I do not want a young man to have a potential felony on his record,” said one member of the panel.
During a football game last November, a referee accused Brown of intentionally striking him in the chest with his forearm. Based solely on the referee’s word the FHSAA invoked their own version of the death penalty on Brown – barring him from ever again competing in high school sports.
When CBS4 News first sat down with Brown and his mother, Darnita, they were both shaken by the allegations and insistent on Jonathan’s innocence.
“I don’t understand how an adult can first of all deliberately lie,” Darnita said, referring in the referee.
She then broke down in tears.
A reading teacher at Jonathan’s school, Darnita Brown has been waging a merciless war against the FHSAA and the referee.
Unfortunately, in the world of the Florida High School Athletic Association the presumption that a child is guilty is almost impossible to overcome.
Last November’s game between Coral Park and Coral Gables was a cross-town matchup that saw Gables up by 21 points in the third quarter. Gables scored again on a long pass play and as Jonathan, who was playing defense walked back to the sideline, he passed by referee Charles Hepburn.
Darnita Brown remembers watching from the stands.
“As I was watching I saw Jonathan walking, I saw he was walking with his head down and his hands were at his side and I remember yelling, `It’s okay, it’s okay,” Darnita said. “And I saw the referee stop and I saw him pat Jon on the back and I’m thinking, wow that’s such a nice gesture.”
A few moments later Hepburn conferred with his fellow officials. A minute later the officials announced Jonathan was being ejected from the game.
Confused, Darnita called out to one of the trainers to see what was happening.
“And she said, `They ejected Jon.’ And my first reaction was, `Jon who? And she goes, `Jon, your Jon. And I said, `My Jon?’”
In this report to the Florida High School Athletic Association Hepburn wrote that Jonathan “walked right into me and forearm myself right [in] the chest.” As a result, the FHSAA banned Jonathan not just from football but from all sports.
“You take your whole life and you raise your child to be respectful of everybody and then when you have somebody blatantly lie,” she said. “I just don’t understand it.”
Darnita was told challenging the word of a referee was virtually impossible. Then came the video.
Taken by a parent in the stands, it shows if there was contact it was incidental. And as for that forearm to the chest? There is no sign of it.
Darnita believed that with this video the matter would quickly be resolved. She started writing state athletic officials demanding action.
“I kept saying from Jonathan’s perspective he’s innocent and he didn’t do anything and when will it be cleared up,” she said.
But as months passed, the more Darnita pleaded her son’s innocence, the more hostile state athletic officials became. The number two man at the FHSAA – Justin Harrison – wrote Darnita telling her they could have Jonathan arrested for felony assault.
“As mentioned in an earlier email, this is an egregious offense and per state statute could be processed as a felony if the official decided to pursue that route,” Harrison wrote Darnita on February 26. “I only say all of this to relay the seriousness of the incident on our end for this incident.”
Darnita said the more she read Harrison’s email, the angrier she became.
“I’m thinking why is this man saying this that this could be a felony,” she recalled. “I don’t understand. That’s why I kept saying, `Are you watching the same video that I’m watching?’ And he kept saying, `Yes.’”
CBS4 News contacted both FHSAA’s Harrison and the referee, Hepburn. Both men refused to comment.
Jonathan finally had his case heard by an appeals board in April.
All the members of the panel agreed there was no sign of any forearm to the chest.
“I just don’t see what he wrote up,” said a member of the panel.
Even with the video there was debate and a desire to punish Jonathan for something – anything. What Darnita saw as the ref patting Jonathan on the back – the panel saw as the ref pushing Jonathan away.
But after more than an hour of discussion and debate, the committee voted four to one to clear Jonathan’s record. He will return to the football field this Fall.
After the vote Darnita began to cry.
“I’m just so relieved that Jonathan is free,” she said. “But for all the other Jonathans out there who were not lucky and fortunate to have the video, what happens to them?”