by Adam Siegel
In terms of passionate environments, sports perhaps can make politics look like a calm environment. From European soccer hooligans to crowds rioting in streets post a championship, that passion can escalate into threats and physical violence.
One thing that virtually all fans agree on, in one fashion or another, the officials need glasses and got it all wrong to make their team lose … and, in some sporting environments, the referees even receive police escorts to and from matches to dissuade physical violence against them.
That passion extends down into the youngest ages and from professional into recreational leagues, but youth sport referees don’t get (and very rarely need) that sort of police protection. But, sadly, abusiveness and even violence does occur and headlines like Soccer violence: Referees under siege are an all-too frequent item and Verbal abuse from parents, coaches is causing a referee shortage in youth sports represents a simple reality.
Now, perhaps I notice those headlines a bit more as a reasonably active youth soccer referee and parent to referees but that overtone of potential violence does exist amid what is a generally good experience. A good share of ‘post match’ discussion deals with idiocies and ugliness from coaches and parents (e.g., rudeness and beyond …) but sometimes it isn’t just laughing over stupidity or discomfort over rude words. There was that time that I had to stand between a parent, who had been ejected from the field, and the center referee to stop some pushing and shoving from escalating into some more serious. Or those menacing threats by a player’s older brother heard, as I waited to officiate the next match, mumbled against the referee calling off the game due to the coach’s inappropriate behavior and my hesitant moment considering that young adult’s 240 lb (or so) frame before going over to talk to him to try to quell something far worse than rude comments from happening. The incident on a field near me where a parent took their dog off the leash and had them attack the crew — with the referee needing hospital care, that dog owner didn’t face criminal charges and wasn’t even sanctioned by the soccer association. The …. The simple truth to consider in a nation where more and more guns are being carried around by people, referees are working in increasingly violent field
After a referee issued a yellow card during a recreational soccer game in Utah, a 17-year-old player punched him in the head. Following a week in a coma, Ricardo Portillo died…
While violence against referees and umpires has reached a fever pitch, there are solutions. Part of that solution path is having the appropriate legal framework to enable police to act forcefully when referees are threatened to forestall, hopefully, violence and enable appropriate action when/if such violence occurs. With that in mind, the Safe Whistles Coalition is promoting HB315 (the 2018 Sports Official Abuse Prevention (SOAP) Act) which would to have Virginia join a raft of other states with legislation pulling together existing legal authorities in a clear statement to enable better protection of referees. HB315 would make it a Class 1 misdemeanor
for a person to, in the presence or hearing of a sports official, curse or abuse the sports official or use violent abusive language toward the sports official concerning the sports official or his relations under circumstances reasonably calculated to provoke a breach of the peace.
Let’s be clear, this isn’t about the coach annoyingly screaming from 40 yards away with zero technical ability to judge the situation “THAT WAS OFFSIDES” or my shock at parents booing when I gave a 12-year girl a red card for kicking the goalie in the face when the goalie had control of the ball (note: that one got to me: parents complaining because I was enforcing a basic rule intended to protect players from injury — sure, I am 99% sure it was accidental but that is seriously dangerous play as per the cuts on the goalie’s face above and below the eye), but is about threats and menaces that already constitute illegal activity: e.g., ‘reasonably calculated to provoke a breach of the peace’.
Existing champions of HB315 include Democratic Party Delegates Patrick Hope (Arlington) and Rip Sullivan (Fairfax) along with, in the other chamber, Senator Janet Howell (Reston). Amid
a tense political environment, with the Republicans holding the House by the slimmest margin and nearly as close balance in the Senate, one should wonder whether providing appropriate legal structures for turning youth sports from an increasing violent path is simply a Democratic Party priority (based on existing listed sponsors) or something that is non-partisan. Surely it is the second. After all, no one wants to see youth sports curtailed because referees/sport officials are afraid to walk on the field/court/diamond. If such commonsense prevails, HB315 should breeze through the legislative session for signature by Governor Ralph Northam.