In Kansas, a bill working its way through the House of Representatives would make it a crime to abuse a referee in any way. That includes, says ABC Action News, approaching sports officials in a “menacing, threatening irate or violent manner.” Oh, and screaming obscenities could also get a fan charged with a misdemeanor.
The bill, HB2139, was most recently recommended to be passed by the Committee on Education. The Topeka Capitol-Journal notes, “the bill would add an extra level of protection for sports officials at all levels, bumping up any physical assault, spitting, menacing, threatening or abusive language against them, to a Class B misdemeanor. That level of crime carries a fine of up to $1,000, up to six months in jail, or both. For harassment against minor sports officials, the bill would increase the penalty to a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of up to $2,500, up to a year in jail, or both.”
Those in favor of the bill say it has been a long time coming. And one of those, John Dehan, owner of the Call the Game officiating organization in eastern Kansas, testified in front of officials about his experiences as a referee, noting that he had been subjected to numerous instances of violence in his career, including being shoved up against a wall by an irate parent; at the time, Dehan had been trying to hold the parent’s son back from starting a brawl with the opposing team.
Yahoo! News weighed in, pointing out that Bill Faflick, executive director for the Kansas State High School Activities Association, said his organization supports the bill as well, and said that it just might help it tackle what is a historic low in the number of sports officials available for games.
He said that the top reason officials quit or fail to join in the first place is mistreatment from coaches and fans.
“It’s not a game if you don’t have officials,” Faflick said. “Without officials, it’s just recess. Now, I love recess, but the educational benefit of recess is not the same as the educational benefit of interscholastic activities, where there is a standard that is accomplished for kids to be able to represent their school.”
Many longtime officials quit their jobs in the face of escalating abuse. They are not being replaced by those in a younger age bracket either. Dehan noted that he has seen reports of officials as young as 14 years old being harassed and threatened.
Some politicians are skeptical that even if the bill becomes law, it will turn the tide. They point to the fact that police officers are still threatened and attacked, despite the fact that it is illegal to do so.
Others, though, were more hopeful, telling Capitol-Journal reporters that legislative action, “even if just a hearing, could help curtail the problem of abuse, which could in turn remove one of the biggest reasons sports officials leave the profession.”
“We’re never going to stop all crimes from happening,” said Rep. Adam Thomas, R-Olathe and chair. “We’re never going to stop people from running on the court and doing stupid things they’ve done for years. But if we can send a message that it’s on our radar and law enforcement is paying attention, it’s certainly — as a worst case scenario, in my mind — a good faith gesture to our officials.”
If the bill in Kansas is passed into law, that state will join a number of others who offer similar laws aimed at protecting game officials, according to the National Association of Sports Officials. Among those are Alabama, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawai’i, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia. The charges levied upon assailants (as well as definitions of assault) vary by state.
Despite these instances of legislation, referee numbers continue to fall throughout the United States. Just after the year 2022 began, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) announced that A survey of state high school associations indicates that approximately 50,000 individuals had discontinued their service as high school officials since the 2018-19 season.