Lawmakers angle to protect refs and umps from abuse at games

James Neiss/staff photographerThe umpire called Niagara Wheatfield baseball player Anthony Oliveri safe at second base as Grand Island player John McGinty looks toward the unreachable ball during game action at Niagara Wheatfield in 2012.

ALBANY — After fielding one report after another of unruly fans and parents harassing and even accosting referees, umpires and sports officials, lawmakers have advanced a measure aimed at discouraging such confrontational behavior.

Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Schenectady County, said spectators, players or others who threaten and intimidate sports officials need to be put in check, whether it's at high school games, Little League contests, college events or professional matchups.

"My mentors and my parents and my coaches taught us about the importance of teamwork, but most of all they emphasized the importance of good sportsmanship," said Tedisco, who set varsity basketball scoring records before graduating from Union College in Schenectady in 1972.

"Unfortunately, I think that is missing right now," the senator added.

Last weekend, a referee was allegedly punched by a player for a losing basketball team following a community game in the Saratoga County town of Halfmoon. No arrests have been made, though State Police have opened an investigation.

A 2017 survey of more than 17,000 sports officials found that nearly half have feared for their safety because of the aggressive behavior of a coach, player or parent, the National Association of Sports Officials reported.

Legislation filed in Albany would address the situation by modifying the state Penal Law sections dealing with harassment and aggravated assault. Under the measure, those charges could be brought if the target of the aggression are sports officials involved in all levels of athletics, both amateur and professional.

"Umpires, referees and other sports officials are an essential part of organized sports, making sure the games are fair and safe for all involved," said Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Erie County, a lead sponsor of the legislation.

Gallivan said the proposed legislation would "send a clear message that this type of abuse would not be tolerated in any sport, at any level."

The legislation also suggests the state Department of Education should develop a public information campaign aimed at spectators who attend school athletic events.

The legislation has a majority house sponsor in the lower chamber, Assemblyman William Conrad, D-Tonawanda.

Conrad said he has seen referees being harassed at his 10-year-old son's hockey games. The role of those officials, he noted, is to ensure the contests are "safe, fun and fair" for participants.

A law intended to shield sports officials from such abuse was invoked in Minnesota this year when an irate spectator was ejected from a gym after ripping a whistle off an official's lanyard because he disagreed with a call made during a high school game. The spectator was also charged with misdemeanor assault and disorderly conduct.

In Halfmoon last weekend, the basketball referee who was reportedly accosted suffered what was described as a mild concussion when witnesses said he was "sucker punched"

Tedisco said he is concerned it will become increasingly challenging to find people to be umpires or referees if sports officials continue to be harangued, disrespected and assaulted.

Questionable calls by officials are "part of the game," and are no excuse for fans or others to accost officials when they disagree with the decisions made on the courts, on the fields or on the rinks, he said.

"I know the news media gets beat up by some in the public and public servants get beat up," Tedisco said. "But I don't know anyone who gets beat up more than the people who officiate in sports. These fans now don't care -- even when the call is right."

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