There’s a fine line between being a passionate sports dad and an abusive one, and Missouri lawmakers might make crossing that line a crime in the near future. State legislators are now considering passing a bill that would provide youth sports referees with strict legal protection from assault by parents and coaches. Should the bill pass, Missouri would become the 24th state with laws that outline what constitutes assault against a sports official.
The bill — sponsored by Rep. Jerome Barnes of Raytown — wouldn’t just define assault against a sports official, but would also make the penalty more severe than it is right now. Barnes might have been inspired by a February junior-varsity girls basketball game in his town that was interrupted when one fan left the stands to punch a referee in the face after disagreeing with a call.
Within professional sports leagues like the NBA, players who overly antagonize or assault officials are ejected, fined, and — in the most severe cases — suspended. Fans who do the same are usually banned from arenas and stadiums, and can face criminal charges. When it comes to youth sports, however, a disproportionate amount of spectators antagonize, threaten, or outright assault officials, with no special legal recourse offered to the latter beyond standard assault laws.
It’s not that every incident involving an assault on a youth sports official goes unpunished, but rather that Barnes feels there aren’t strict enough guidelines surrounding that punishment. While data that specifically measures the number of assaults on youth sports referees hasn’t been officially collected, it’s a problem that is affecting the referees’ ability to do their jobs. According to a report by The Washington Post, many youth sports officials are running out of patience with irate parents and spectators.
The result has been a sharp drop off in the retention of youth officials: Virginia’s Fairfax County Football Officials Association has experienced a 40 percent drop in referees, largely attributed to antagonizing parents. Youth soccer, which already suffers from a shortage of coaches, has been affected as well. The Commonwealth Soccer Officials Association–also based in Virginia–found that up to 85 percent of youth soccer games inspected featured “loud vocal dissent from fans, of which 20 percent included spectator profanity.”
Despite the ongoing conversation surrounding protections for youth referees, this isn’t the first time Missouri lawmakers have tried to address the issue. According to a report by the Missourian, the state legislature green-lit a 2015 resolution aimed at getting high schools, law enforcement, and college sports programs to “use the full extent of the law to prosecute those who threaten or assault sports officials.”