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Referee harassment bill introduced

A close play in a high school or youth sports game can quickly cause tempers to flare.

Those who take their consternation too far, however, could end up facing a fine if legislation proposed by Rep. Anita Astorino Kulik, D-Allegheny, is approved in the state Legislature. Kulik introduced legislation recently that would create the crime of harassment of a sports official. The bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

The charge would be a third-degree misdemeanor punishable by six months to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.

“Sports officials, such as umpires and referees, are essential to the sporting events thousands of families attend each year in Pennsylvania,” Kulik wrote in her legislative justification. “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 disagreements expressed by players, coaches, and spectators.”

State law currently includes protection for sports officials, but only if they are assaulted. The maximum penalty for assault on a sports official is 2 1/2 to five years in prison, but the charge is rarely used. A 2017 York Daily Record story noted that only six people have been sentenced on a charge of assault on a sports official from 2006 to 2015.

“I believe this protection should be extended to include harassment,” Kulik wrote. “Sports officials should be able to perform their duties without threats of personal injury, administrative hearings, or litigation because of their game calls. Therefore, I am introducing legislation that would create the separate offense of harassment of a sports official. My legislation would apply to sports officials throughout the state and protect them from harassment that arises as a result of them simply doing their job.”

Twenty-three states have legislation on the books with some sort of protection for referees, according to the National Association of Sports Officials. A recent article by Stateline, a subsidiary of the Pew Trusts, referenced a Facebook page titled “Offside” with hundreds of videos of people verbally harassing and sometimes physically abusing youth sports officials. The same story, published Aug. 24, referenced a 2017 National Association of Sports Officials survey of more than 17,000 officials, referees and umpires from across the nation that 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. According to the Pew Trust article, 57% of those surveyed said sportsmanship is “getting worse,” 40% said parents caused the most problems, while 18% cited “fans” in general and 30% blamed coaches.

In neighboring New York state, legislation was introduced in 2019 and reintroduced in 2021 by state Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, to establish the crime of assault on sports officials and aggravated harassment of a sports official. The legislation has yet to make it out of committee or to garner a companion bill in the New York Assembly.

“Spectators who have committed these acts not only harm the victim but also create consternation among the entire community of sports officials, often resulting in a diminished interest among persons willing to become a sports official. This dearth of interest is no more acute than among youth and school sports programs,” Gallivan wrote in his legislative justification.

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