A Proposal to Protect Referees From Angry Parents

Twenty-three states have passed laws, statutes or resolutions that protect referees and other sports officials.

Twenty-three states have passed laws, statutes or resolutions that protect referees and other sports officials. Shutterstock


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A Wisconsin lawmaker, who is also a youth umpire, wants to increase penalties for harassing or intimidating sports officials, a move he hopes will improve recruitment and retention in the field of athletics.

Several years ago during a youth softball tournament, umpire Don Vruwink made a routine call that ended a game. 

“A couple of parents didn’t like the call, and they followed me and my son all the way to our car in the parking lot yelling at us the whole time,” said Vruwink, who also serves as a representative in the Wisconsin legislature. “That’s what you would consider to be harassment.”

This month, Vruwink will introduce legislation that he hopes will prevent similar incidents on sports fields. The bill, currently in the draft stage, would make it a criminal misdemeanor to harass or intimidate sports officials, punishable with a fine of up to $10,000 or nine months in jail. Violators could also be sentenced to up to 40 hours of community service and mandated therapy, including anger management, at their own expense.

It’s a significant increase in penalty from the current law, which calls for a maximum fine of $1,000. The measure is meant largely as a deterrent, said Rep. Todd Novak, a Republican, and one of the bill’s cosponsors. The increased penalties are not intended for parents or fans who simply react in the moment to a call they disagree with, he said, while emphasizing that the changes are necessary.

“The fine looks huge and bad, but that would be left to the prosecutor’s discretion,” he said. “I think it’s just another thing to hang out there and say, ‘Hey, listen, if you’re going to come here and act like this, this is what you could be facing.’”

The harshest penalties would likely be reserved for what Vruwink, a Democrat, called “extreme cases”—parents who relentlessly badger officials throughout an entire game, for example, or follow them after a match to demand an explanation for a particular call.

“You can react to a call just like you normally would react to a call,” he said. “What we’re talking about is when you’re reffing a basketball game and every time you walk by the same person, the whole game, they keep yelling at you nonstop for a call you made earlier. That’s what we would consider harassment.”

The sponsors said the measure has bipartisan support in both the Senate and the Assembly. It is also backed by multiple school districts, including the 13 in Novak’s district, and the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, which petitioned legislators for help after noticing ongoing declines in the number of high school sports officials in the state. A WIAA survey of active officials found that nearly half of respondents—48% of male referees and 45% of female ones—had felt unsafe due to their involvement with officiating, and 57% believe sportsmanship is getting worse, mostly due to parents, coaches and fans.

“Responding to the national crisis as a result of the shortage of amateur and youth sport officials, we applaud and recognize the Wisconsin legislature’s bipartisan efforts to create protections for the men and women that officiate these events,” Dave Anderson, executive director of WIAA, said in a statement. “We are grateful for their willingness to help protect and preserve these school-based activities, as well as youth and adult recreation opportunities, which contribute to the fabric of our communities and society.”

Twenty-three states have passed legislation, civil statutes or resolutions protecting sports officials from assault or harassment. Last year, Louisiana created its law against harassment of a school or recreational referee, defining harassment as “verbal or nonverbal behavior...that would cause a reasonable person to be placed in fear of receiving bodily harm.”

The hope in Wisconsin, Vruwink said, is to improve the environment for young officials so they’re motivated to continue working in the field, allowing kids to participate in athletics for the foreseeable future.

“We’re finding that they do it for one or two years and they quit because they’re tired of listening to complaints or the harassment that they’re getting. They’re not staying with it,” he said. “As officials, we want to enjoy our work as well, and we do this because we like being around the game. The constant harassment or pushback doesn’t give us enjoyment and that’s why we don’t want to do it.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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