By John L. Micek
For the Pittsburgh Current
Let’s face it, these are tough times to be a sports referee or umpire, what with the overall decline of civility in our culture and the rise of psycho sports parents bent on reliving their glory days through their pint-sized power forward or aspiring short-reliever.
It’s already illegal under existing state law to slug a referee, no matter how ham-handed the call. But a state lawmaker from Allegheny County wants to up the ante and make it illegal to harass a sports official as they go about the business of calling balls and strikes.
“Sports officials, such as umpires and referees, are essential to the sporting events thousands of families attend each year in Pennsylvania,” Rep. Anita Astorino Kulik, D-Allegheny, who’s currently soliciting co-sponsors for her proposal wrote in a memo to colleagues last week. “Regardless of the sport, a sports official’s job is a highly stressful one. This is due in no small part to the split-second, often contentious rulings they are required to make. These calls sometimes result in strong disagreement expressed by players, coaches, and spectators.”
If you think this is a solution in search of a problem, think again. Thanks to a yawning age gap, there’s currently a shortage of sporting officials nationwide, according to AthleticBusiness, an industry trade publication.
Right now, more than 80 percent of young sports officials quit their jobs after two years because of harassment, the publication reported, citing data compiled by the National Association of Sports Officials.
Three-quarters of those who quit cite “adult behavior” as the reason, and it’s led to a shortage of high school officials, according to an op-Ed published by the Cincinnati Enquirer earlier this month.
“Currently, there are more officials over the age of 60 than under the age of 30 and there aren’t enough young ones to replace them,” the publication reported last June. “The shortage of officials is becoming severe enough in some areas that athletic events are being postponed or canceled. If there are no officials, there are no games.”
In all, 21 states now have officiating assault laws (including 19 with criminal laws and two with civil statutes), according to NASO’s website. Sixteen states have limited liability legislation and 15 states with independent contractor laws. Two more states — Idaho, Washington and Missouri — have supportive resolutions for sports officials, according to the group’s 2019 legislative scorecard.
Last June, lawmakers in Louisiana passed, and Gov. John Bel Edwards signed, legislation banning harassment of sports officials, AthleticBusiness reported. The law took effect last August, the publication noted. State lawmakers in Wisconsin were in the early stages of mulling such a bill last year, Urban Milwaukee reported. Violators faced a 9-month jail term, a $10,000 fine, or both, the magazine reported.
Kulik’s co-sponsorship memo is silent on potential penalties for Pennsylvania violators. But it does point out the gravity of the issue.
“Sports officials should be able to perform their duties without threats of personal injury, administrative hearings or litigation because of their game calls,” she wrote. “This is why I am introducing legislation that would create the separate offense of harassment of a sports official. This legislation would apply to sports officials throughout the state and protect them from harassment that arises as a result of them doing their job.”
John L. Micek is the editor of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.