Referee assault bill will seek to curb violence at N.H. events
Rabid sports fans may soon have a reason to keep their tempers in check at New Hampshire athletic events.
A bill to be introduced next year in the Legislature would enact penalties for anyone who attacks a referee at a sanctioned event – no matter the sport or level of play. The legislation is part of an effort to curb violence at athletic events across the state, according to sponsors and supporters.
“Referees and other sports officials should be able to do their jobs without threat of personal injury due to a call they made,” said Sen. Sylvia Larsen, a Concord Democrat and the bill’s primary sponsor. “It’s an issue of respect and civility.”
Paul Raymond Jr., who manages referees for youth soccer and basketball leagues throughout New England, said he has noticed an increase over the past five or so years in the number of violent outbreaks at sporting events – both statewide and nationally. Some of the attacks even left his refs hospitalized, he said, though no major injuries have resulted yet.
Youth events are most problematic, Raymond said, especially between grades five and eight.
“We really value youth sports, and I think we really should,” said Rep. Shannon Chandley, an Amherst Democrat and a sponsor of the bill. “But I think sometimes we go too far.”
Violence and sportsmanship in amateur athletics came to a head earlier this year in Utah, when a 17-year-old youth soccer player killed a referee and father of three by punching him in the head during a game. The 46-year-old official, who had called a foul on the 17-year-old, died a week later, after entering a coma.
Raymond, who has been officiating games for the last 15 years and who helped gather a few hundred signatures in support of the New Hampshire bill, said backers view it as a preventive step against similar incidents.
“We don’t want to come back a year or two from now and attach a name to the bill,” he said.
If the legislation passes, anyone charged with simple assault against a referee will face a fine of at least $500. Offenders could also be subject to counseling or community support, and may be temporarily barred from attending games, as determined by a court. The penalties would apply to any organized or sanctioned sporting event, including business and charity functions. The rule would take effect Jan. 1, 2015.
Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat and a sponsor of the bill, said she hopes it sends a message to spectators who might not realize the impact they have on younger players and fans.
“Sports is a place where so many youth learn sportsmanship and how to get along,” she said. “I think everyone involved needs to know that the penalties will be serious for inappropriate behavior. It’s about setting a good example.”
Raymond wasn’t sure why violence seems to have escalated in recent years, but he said it has affected his Concord-based business, Premier Referees, which dispatches officials to about 3,000 sporting events each year. The overall pool of available refs has shrunk, he said, and recruiting new ones has grown increasingly difficult.
Which is a shame, he noted, because referees have long taken pride in what they do.
“They don’t do it for the money,” Raymond said. “They do it because they love the sport.”
He said he tells new recruits to always try to avoid conflict.
“We just tell them to remain as calm as possible,” he said. “To try not to escalate the situation. And if that doesn’t work, to just leave and get out of there.”
Chandley said close to two dozen other states have referee assault laws in place.
(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)