Sports officials acknowledge that their task is challenging on the field and from the sidelines, where disgruntled coaches and fans yell and jeer about calls they do not like.
But lately, says former referee and now state Representative Jerome Barnes, game environments are getting more violent.
He says in his own town of Raytown, outside Kansas City, a basketball official was hit and knocked out by someone coming out on the court. The victim had to get medical care and miss work.
“Referees are getting attacked, yelled at, cursed at, threatened before during and after the game and nothing is really being done about it,” says Barnes.
So Barnes has been repeatedly tackling the topic in the Legislature, and this year is sponsoring two bills this session:
H.B. 1570 which expands the definition of “special victim” under Section 565.002, RSMo, to include sports officials at a sporting event while performing their duties as sports officials, and
H.B. 1803, which creates a penalty for verbally harassing officials and defines “recreation athletic contest official.”
Barnes says emergency workers are legally protected as “special victims,” which also includes MoDOT workers and utility or cable service technicians.
“When the guy comes out to cut your utilities or cable off, it’s not because they want to do that, he’s following the company rules. If you hit him or do something to him, he’s in that special victims group. Same thing with the officials, they are not out there enforcing the rules because they like them, they are out there enforcing the rules of the basketball or football game and should be protected as well,” Barnes tells Missourinet.
Barnes says college and pro sports officials have escorts and protection before, during and after the games. Not so for high school and youth sports. He hopes adding a layer of legal protection will help.
He says most officiating is a “thankless job” and now there is a shortage because of the increasing stress.
Barnes cites a recent study by the National Association of Sports Officials that shows the median age of officials in all sports is more than 50 years old. Almost half of the male officials feel unsafe on the job because of spectators. Most say they stick with it because of the love of the game itself. The survey also shows that 57 percent of officials say that sportsmanship is getting worse, mostly at the youth competitive level.
Barnes said he heard from an active referee about how to solve the problem:
“He says that if you assault a referee, then after you serve your sentence, it should be mandatory that you become a referee for three years–as punishment,” Barnes laughs.
More seriously, he says he is worried about the rise of violent crime among youth in general and what it may mean for sports.
“The way things are happening, you can see it coming,” Barnes says. “Once the word gets out about stiffer prosecutions, this will slow things down.”