Lawmakers call foul on referee abuse

State Rep. Don Vruwink tells his refereeing stories

By: - September 8, 2021 6:40 am

Wisconsin state Rep. Don Vruwink umpires a softball game in the spring of 2019. Increasing amounts of harassment of referees and umpires at youth sporting events, including some directed at him, prompted Vruwink to co-sponsor legislation that would increase penalties and fines for assaulting or abusing referees. Courtesy of Don Vruwink

A few years ago, an umpire at a softball tournament for 12-year-old girls in Stoughton, Wisconsin, made a call on a play at the plate: The runner was safe.

Angry parents hollered it was a “stupid” call, and after the game, the ump recalled, two fathers followed him to the parking lot, “yelling at me all the way.”

The tournament director was afraid the confrontation was about to get physical, before the umpire’s 25-year-old son, a base umpire in the same game, got in the parents’ faces and “told them to back off.”

Rep. Don Vruwink as a referee | via official Facebook
Rep. Don Vruwink as a referee | via official Facebook

The umpire under fire was Wisconsin state Rep. Don Vruwink, 69. Two years ago, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association complained to the Democratic lawmaker from Milton that harassment of umpires and referees was so rampant it had become impossible to attract enough of them, leading to the cancellation or postponement of games.

“They said, ‘It’s a problem.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know,’” Vruwink recalled in a phone interview. Vruwink’s son, Craig, was so unsettled by the confrontation that he has seldom umpired since.

Vruwink introduced a bill that was sidetracked by the pandemic. The current version, with two Republicans as lead co-sponsors, would make harassing an umpire or referee a misdemeanor. In addition to any other penalties that already apply to harassment of individuals, the offense would carry a penalty of 40 hours of community service and a required anger management course.

Wisconsin is one of a half-dozen states considering umpire and referee protection legislation this year. Lawmakers in Michigan, New York and Ohio are among those who want to make attacking officials a specific felony or a high-grade misdemeanor. The bills would put referees in a class of workers who have special protections, including police, emergency medical workers and teachers.

Opponents question the need for that special classification, arguing that referees already are protected by ordinary assault laws. In addition, the drive to make such attacks a felony has drawn resistance, with critics saying that’s too harsh a penalty. Hawaii last year dropped a felony clause from its legislation before enacting it.

Rep. Alex Dallman

But many state lawmakers continue to press forward.

“There is a very large shortage of referees across our state,” said Wisconsin state Rep. Alex Dallman (R-Green Lake), who is sponsoring the current bill. “The stress they are taking on is greater than it was. There’s less respect for authority. This bill would be one more way to bolster officials.”

In a survey conducted in May by the National Association of Sports Officials, about a third of respondents said they would not be comfortable returning to officiating because of the pandemic. The average age of youth officials is over 50, so many are at higher risk of serious illness if they contract the virus, according to Barry Mano, who heads the Racine, Wisconsin-based organization.

“A component is that officials who didn’t referee this whole last year or 18 months, because of COVID, are deciding ‘I’m not going to do this anymore.’ Many are older, and we are not bringing young people in; that’s exacerbated the problem,” he said in a phone interview.

Crowd limits during the pandemic have made games more subdued affairs, with less heckling and fewer arguments with referees, Mano said. But he predicted that the change is only temporary.

“Sports is life, with the volume turned up. Why are we surprised?”

Dozens of online videos show why such laws may be needed. There is footage of parents running onto the field to confront soccer refs; spectators throwing punches at basketball referees; players head-butting football refs; adults brawling at mighty mites wrestling tournaments; and parents grabbing water bottles to go after baseball umpires.

In 2019, a New Hampshire hockey coach with a team of 11- and 12-year-old players was fired after he was caught on video punching a referee during a game in Massachusetts.

The young players often are the ones hurt most when parents and coaches clash, said Debbie Joy, 31, a Sykesville, Maryland, resident who has refereed soccer and umpired softball since she was 12. She recalled umpiring a softball game between teams of 12-year-olds in which the dad of a catcher continually criticized his daughter and Joy.

The heckling and criticism escalated until “he nearly shouted at me because of a call I made,” Joy recalled in an email to Stateline. “I ejected him from the game. Once he was gone and I resumed play, I saw that his daughter, who had been alternating between scowling and sulking the whole game, was smiling for the first time.”

At an unrelated high school soccer game, Joy recalled, a different dad was being obnoxious until his daughter finally yelled, “Oh, my God, Dad, shut up!” He did.

A motivational speaker named Brian Barlow operates a Facebook page where he collects outrageous videos of fans, parents and even players acting out. He has gathered 6,000 videos.

In a 2017 survey of more than 17,000 officials, referees and umpires from across the nation, the National Association of Sports Officials found 48% of male officials had felt unsafe or feared for their safety because of the behavior of an administrator, coach, parent or player. Some 45% of female officials felt the same, the survey found.

Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed said sportsmanship is “getting worse,” while only 16% said sportsmanship is “getting better.” The rest said it was unchanged. Forty percent said parents caused the most problems, while 18% cited “fans” in general and 30% blamed coaches.

“You are going to ‘boo’ at us, we can handle that. But harassment introduces the aspect that the person feels unsafe,” Mano said.

In one recorded instance in Ohio in 2019, a football referee was head-butted by a 17-year-old player in full helmet and uniform, causing a concussion and flashbacks that resulted in the ref missing more than a week of work at his two jobs. The ref, Scott Bistrek, tearfully told his tale in February 2020 to the Ohio Senate, which was considering a bill that would increase penalties for assaulting a referee.

“Every time I officiate, I think of this incident,” Bistrek testified. “When is it going to happen again?” Bistrek could not be reached for further comment.

The legislation stalled in committee, but Republican state Rep. Bill Roemer of Ohio introduced it again this session. Roemer, a former high school and youth baseball coach, said the berating of officials from parents in particular has gotten “much, much worse” over the past several years, largely because parents are so invested in their kids’ performances, with some dreaming of college scholarships. Many can’t bear calls going against their kids, he said.

“I think the worst ages are from 10 to 12. By the time they get to high school, parents know if the [kids] are not going to get a Division I [college] scholarship. When the kids are 10-12, they think that little Johnny is going to be the next [former Yankees all-star pitcher] C.C. Sabathia.”

He pointed to an article in the Akron Beacon Journal in which people tasked with assigning umpires and referees to games cited “fan abuse” as the No. 1 reason that referees refuse to work games.

“That’s one of the things we’re trying to stop,” Roemer said.

Andy Milligan, an Ohio soccer referee who first brought the issue to Roemer, recalled ejecting a player from one game. “A guy comes up to me and says, ‘Why’d you eject that player? You know he’s going to have to serve a suspension. If so, I own this town. … I will come and find you and I will get you.’ That kind of bothered me,” he said.

As Sports Teams Struggle, So Do Their Hometowns

Milligan said he viewed the comment as a threat on his life. “If I were a first-year referee, I would have never come back to officiating. That’s why we’re losing referees.”

Bruce Svare, a psychology and neuroscience professor at the State University of New York at Albany, and an expert on the professionalization of youth sports, agreed.

“If you have an investment in your child in the thousands of dollars and success and winning become a paramount concern, these things are inevitable,” he said in a phone interview.

High schools do a better job of controlling spectators than youth leagues, he said. Parents who pay thousands of dollars to professional coaches and organizers of elite teams may be harboring unrealistic expectations, he added.

“Sports entrepreneurs … that’s a big part of the scene,” he said. “And I don’t want to exclude the lack of civility that’s developed in our country.”

New laws may be unavoidable, he said. “It’s a sad commentary that it’s come to that, for sure. We may be at a tipping point with all of this that there’s no other choice.”

At least 20 states already have laws providing special criminal penalties for attacks—including verbal ones—against referees. Most of the bills under consideration would increase existing penalties or up the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony.

New York, for example, is considering a bill that would elevate the fines and punishment for attacking a referee to a higher class of felony and create a misdemeanor for harassing a referee.

The bill is sponsored by state Sen. Mike Martucci, a Republican.

“Concerns about COVID transmission, cancellation of games and seasons and rules for masks, etc., have made it even harder to get new folks into this business, so coupled with the previous issues, it’s a real problem,” Martucci’s chief of staff, Matt Nelligan, said in an email.

While there is general backing for the bills that would increase legal protections for referees, there is some resistance to creating a special class of workers and singling them out with special laws.

For example, lawmakers in Hawaii scaled back a bill that would have made attacking sports officials a new class of felony and would have elevated harassing officials to a higher class of misdemeanor.

Susan Arnett, formerly of the Hawaii Office of the Public Defender, testified against the original bill. Arnett argued that laws that give special status to emergency medical workers and police officers do not deter attackers, that existing laws against assault are sufficient and that making referee harassment a felony is too harsh.

“We in no way want to suggest that sports officials should be subjected to this kind of treatment,” she said. “We’re certainly sympathetic to what the folks are subjected to.” But, she said, the best remedy for unsportsmanlike behavior is to ban abusive fans from games.

The Hawaii legislature and Democratic Gov. David Ige chose that path, enacting a bill late last year that allows courts to prohibit persons who are convicted of assaulting or threatening sports officials from attending similar events for up to a year.

Article courtesy of Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Elaine Povich
Elaine Povich

Elaine S. Povich covers consumer affairs for Stateline. Povich has reported for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and United Press International. She also has worked as a freelancer for the Washington Post, the Fiscal Times, Governing, Kiplinger and AARP Bulletin. She has written three books, including "John McCain: American Maverick," and is at work on a fourth. She is an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. Povich received the Everett McKinley Dirksen Award for Distinguished Reporting of Congress for her work on how the personal health care stories of members of Congress affect policy. She is a past president of the Washington Press Club Foundation, which helps young women and minorities excel in the field of journalism through internships in Washington, D.C. A native of Bath, Maine, Povich graduated from Cornell University and holds a Master's Certificate in Multimedia Journalism from the University of Maryland.