Assaulting a ref could draw higher penalty

Monday, March 2, 2009 | 8:50 p.m. CST; updated 9:20 p.m. CST, Monday, March 2, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — Unruly fans or athletes could face stiffer penalties if they attack a sports official under a bill being considered in the state House.

The legislation would create a new crime for those who assault a referee or coach at any sporting event in the state, from youth leagues to professional games.

Increased penalties would not mean a loss of yardage. An official's attacker would face up to a $1,000 fine or one year in jail.

Currently, some instances of third-degree assault are punishable with a $300 fine.

"I don't think anyone should be allowed to physically contact a sports official," said Rep. Steve Hodges, a co-sponsor of the legislation, which has yet to receive a committee hearing.

More than 20 states have increased penalties for assaulting a sports official. Most of those states have similar criminal penalties as Missouri's proposal. Oregon allows officials to sue for their injuries, and Minnesota allows its state high school sports agency to ban an attacker from games for a year.

Hodges, D-East Prairie, has been officiating football for 40 years. During that time, he has never been harmed, he said, but he knows several officials who have been attacked by upset spectators.

Even though he has not been attacked, Hodges has received his share of verbal abuse. After one football game, a drunken fan approached him and started making threats.

"I turned, I took about a step toward him and he started backing up," said Hodges, who is 6-foot-4 and weighs about 230 pounds.

A fan might be more bold with a smaller official, he said.

Jason West, a spokesman for the Missouri State High School Activities Association, said the bill is aimed toward youth leagues, where parents are more involved.

"On that level is where a law like this is going to come into play," he said. "That's where I've had most of my issues as an official."

West noted an incident in Oklahoma in which a parent was prosecuted using a similar law.

Dale Bowen helps run the Heart of America Pop Warner league in Independence. Although he said children's sports are more difficult to control, the league hasn't had any attacks in the past five years.

A uniformed police officer patrols the league's nine-field complex to help stave off incidents. If there is a problem, Bowen said, the offending person is usually escorted from the property.

Even so, Bowen supports increasing penalties for assaults on a coach or official.

"With the kids, that's the last place where we need anything like that," he said.


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