Kenny Culp planned to take advantage of a free weekend to make $20 per game officiating a Southern Illinois Select basketball tournament — an independent travel tournament for middle and high school athletes — at the Paducah Regional Sports Plex.
Sixty-five teams from across Western Kentucky and other states played over this two-day weekend with the goal of getting youth players extra exposure.
But what started as a simple weekend turned violent.
Culp was officiating the final game of the night on April 6 — a 14-and-under game between Fresh Skills Elite of Flint, Michigan, and Ball Hogg Academy of Edwardsville, Illinois.
The game came down to the wire and Keyon Menifield, coach of the Michigan-based team, had a play under the basket with a chance to win or tie. The player missed the shot and Menifield wanted a foul called that never came. That led to a back-and-forth conversation between Culp and Menifield, according to tournament organizer Riley Swinford.
As Culp was leaving the gym for the night, Menifield — according to the McCracken County Sheriff’s Office — punched Culp, knocking him unconscious and causing multiple injuries, including a broken collarbone, a crack in his sinus cavity, a concussion and bruising in his face.
Culp, 60, was released after nine days at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
Menifield, who according to police fled the area but was found at a local hotel, faced a misdemeanor charge of second-degree assault of a sports official, first offense, which was upgraded to a class C felony in court Tuesday.
His bond was set at $15,000. McCracken County Sheriff’s Office said he has criminal convictions for assault as well that were not on other sports officials.
The news of the alleged assault shocked folks in Paducah.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Dwaine Crick, Kentucky High School Athletic Association assigning secretary. “I’ve been around this game 40-plus years. I’ve seen some irate coaches, but when it comes to blows, I’ve never seen that.”
The fact that it happened to Culp was even more shocking. He has officiated countless high school sporting events and is a well-known figure with high school officials, coaches and athletes.
“I’m 42, and I’ve known Kenny since I was 16 years old,” said Danny Leidecker, Ballard Memorial’s softball coach. “The good thing about Kenny is, even though we’re good friends, when we step on the field together he puts that to the side and he does his job.
“We’ve had some disagreements with each other, but when we walk off the field we’re still friends. We still cut up — his nickname is ‘Parrot.’ He’s just a good-hearted man.”
Once people in the community learned of this incident, they knew they had to help. Crick and others decided to create a GoFundMe page to raise money for Culp’s expenses.
“Medical bills, period,” Crick said. “He’s going to have astronomical medical bills. We’re trying to do something to help that a little bit.”
As of Sunday, they’d raised $6,916 of the $10,000 goal.
Schools decided to follow Crick’s lead.
During the 1st Region All A baseball and softball classic at Ballard Memorial last week, administrators decided to wave the cost of admission but held a fundraiser for the longtime official. They raised $2,312 over a two-day tournament.
“When one of our own is in need we need to step up and help,” Ballard Memorial athletic director Stephen Queen said. “Our community, not just Ballard County, but all of western Kentucky, steps up when people need help and we support each other.”
Swinford said Menifield, 40, has previously brought a team into his tournaments and never had any altercations. He found this incident “unfortunate.”
“I’m a big believer in travel basketball itself,” Swinford said. “My program has sent more than 75 kids to play college basketball ranging from Division I to Division II to Division III and junior college. … I don’t want incidents like this to take away from travel basketball that can really help kids who need more exposure, looks if you’re under the radar and really help get recruited.
“We appreciate Kenny and his willingness to come ref with us. We’re praying for him and his recovery and hopes he continues to get good reports.”
A first offense of assaulting a sports official under Kentucky law is a misdemeanor, and a second offense is a low-level felony. Jeff Bruhn, president of the 1st Region Softball Association and a friend of Culp, is advocating for stiffer penalties.
Bruhn and other officials have contacted Kentucky state legislators with the hopes of changing the law to make the first offense a felony — they want the “Kenny Culp Bill.”
“As officials, we’ve always been told that if you get assaulted or somebody comes and pushes you or attacks you, that it’s a felony. When Kenny was attacked … we got to looking at the charges and it said ‘misdemeanor’ and that threw us all back.
“We’re hoping we can get enough light on this to get it when they come back in session in the fall,” Bruhn added. “And hopefully in honor of Kenny, name (the bill) after him and get this changed to where officials are protected a little more.
“I’ve heard from officials in Colorado, Minnesota, Texas, Illinois and Michigan, so there’s groups trying to get things together and help Kenny once he gets home.”
Culp sent a statement to the media thanking the community for the support.
“I also want to thank the McCracken County Sheriff’s Office and others in law enforcement who have worked hard to see that justice is served,” Culp said in the statement. “I am still under the care and treatment of my medical team at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.”