Stiffer penalties for head-butting the referee

A coach at a kids' soccer match in Florida attacks a referee after a game, head-butting him and breaking his nose.

The mother of a teenage basketball player in North Carolina reacts to a disputed call by jumping on an official's back and clawing at him.

The father of a high school hockey player in Texas puts a referee in a headlock and pulls him into the players' box, ripping his uniform and poking his eye.

Long considered to be the untouchable arbiters of the game, referees are finding themselves increasingly under violent attack on the courts and playing fields of America. The greater frequency of episodes like the ones above mirror the overall rise in sports violence, now evident from the pro level on down to sandlot T-ball, among players, coaches, parents, and fans.

Increasingly, though, there's a new, stricter rule of conduct in sports venues: Attack a ref, do time in jail.

Stiffer penalties for those who attack sports officials are now the law in 14 states, and 14 others are considering similar legislation. Usually, these laws add referees to a special, protected class of public servant - such as teachers, police officers, and jurors - that intensifies the punishment for harming them.

"National awareness of the problem [of violence against officials] has increased dramatically," says Barry Mano, head of the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) in Racine, Wis. "Unfortunately, it's because things have gotten way out of hand. We're seeing some outrageous behavior."

Although NASO doesn't maintain a comprehensive database of incidents, Mr. Mano estimates the organization gets 75 to 100 reports a year of violence against officials, up from just a handful of incidents 20 years ago - enough to make some leave the profession.

Harmless snipes, such as "good eye, ump - use the good eye," have been replaced by personal insults and even death threats, like those a teenage hockey referee in Hamilton, Ontario, received this month. One official had his car run off the road after a game.

Keeping officials safe

Youth leagues, in particular, are coming up with some creative solutions. Some now require parents to sign good-behavior contracts. At least one league instituted "silent Saturdays," in which parent-fans aren't allowed to say a word from the stands. But many officials insist that more specific, legal protection is needed to dissuade spectators and players from taking out their frustrations on the ref.

Stopping violence against officials was never part of NASO's mission when Mano started it in 1980. "It wasn't even on the radar screen," he says. "But the problem has gotten so bad our members started coming to us asking for help."

NASO now lobbies for better protection for officials. Mano himself was a basketball referee for 20 years, and once had a loaded revolver stuck in his belly at a game in Mexico. (He stands by the foul call.)

Laws protecting sports officials vary by state, but most increase punishment from a low misdemeanor, if the same attack were committed against a non-official, to a high one, stretching the possibility of jail time to as much as three years and raising fines.

Backers of the legislation say sports officials deserve this special status because they are, in effect, the police at athletic contests, and an attack on them can presage a breakdown of authority.

In Indianapolis two years ago, for instance, an attack on a football official at a game between 10- and 11-year-olds led to a brawl that took nearly two dozen policemen to quell.

In an effort to explain the rising number of attacks on officials, sports psychologists point to a general lack of civility and a loss of patience in society. They say there are simply more opportunities for confrontation as well. Youth sports programs have grown exponentially in a generation. At the same time, attendance by baby-boomer parents is now an ingrained ritual.

Then too, society is putting more emphasis on winning, say some experts. "Whether Vince Lombardi said it or not - 'winning isn't everything, it's the only thing' - that's the ethic that pervades sports now," says Joel Fish, a sports psychologist in Philadelphia. "Now we equate winning with personal success, so if a bad call by a ref prevents us from winning, it causes a much stronger emotional reaction."

One man's unsuccessful crusade

Still, plenty of legislatures have remained on the sidelines when it comes to laws protecting sports officials. In Washington State, a former wrestling official has led an unsuccessful five-year crusade for such a law.

In 1996, Bob West was officiating a high school wrestling match in Spokane, Wash., when the losing grappler blind-sided him with a head-butt to the temple. Knocked unconscious, Mr. West stopped breathing for 10 seconds. The wrestler spent 30 days in jail, but only because of two previous assaults. Had the head-butt been the youth's first offense, the judge would have had the authority to detain him for only one day, says West.

The incident forced West to give up his longtime job of wrestling and softball officiating due to subsequent poor health, and spurred him to push for specific legislation. He has written five different versions of a bill in the past five years, but each was rejected.

"Next year is my last shot at it," says West. "It's bad enough that these kinds of attacks happen at all, but it's unconscionable that we don't pass laws to help keep them from happening again."

The problem of verbal abuse, threats, and assault has gotten so bad that officials are starting to leave the profession in substantial numbers, according to NASO. Most officiate for love of the game, not the pay, so the added possibility of danger is enough to push some out of the profession entirely. NASO's summer convention this year will be devoted to the problem of attracting and retaining sports officials in an era of heightened intimidation.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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