LEGAL CONCERNS: Why New Laws Regarding Sports Violence Aren’t Necessary

 

Why Statutes Criminalizing Assaults on Sports Officials

Are Still a Bad Idea

By Doug Abrams

 

Tragedy struck in suburban Salt Lake City, Utah on April 27.  Forty-six-year-old youth soccer referee Ricardo Portillo took a single punch to the head from a 17-year-old goalkeeper who was angered about being shown a yellow card (a warning) for shoving an opponent as the teams jockeyed for position after a corner kick in a recreation-league game.  The veteran referee lingered in a coma with swelling of the brain for nearly a week before family members removed life support and donated his organs.

The youth league goalie stands charged with homicide by assault, a third-degree felony that carries a prison term of two to five years. The Salt Lake County district attorney says that he will seek to prosecute the teen as an adult in criminal court, where he could receive a longer sentence than would be possible in juvenile court.

Ricardo Portillo’s death has produced renewed calls for legislation to criminalize assaults on sports officials. According to the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO), 22 states have already enacted such legislation. Two years ago, in my first column on Rick Wolff’s blog, I explained why such legislation is both unnecessary and potentially counter-productive. I hope that Mr. Portillo’s assailant gets everything that is coming to him, but I repeat the explanation here because the events now unfolding in Utah (which is not one of the 22 states) confirm what I wrote then. The youth soccer assailant faces the full force of the law under generally applicable criminal statutes, and this is the way it should be.

Why New Criminal Statutes Are Unnecessary

New statutes criminalizing assaults on sports officials are unnecessary because in every state, a wide array of general-application criminal statutes already punish acts of violence against “another person” or “any person,” including a sports official.  These statutes are sufficient to reach almost any assault that would target a sports official, and they provide a range of penalties that would assure that the punishment fits the crime following conviction or a guilty plea.  In most of the 22 states that have enacted legislation specifically criminalizing assaults on sports officials, the legislation does not increase the penalty range beyond what the law already provides.

The Utah goalkeeper has been charged under a general-application statute.  Utah’s Criminal Code provides: “A person commits homicide by assault if, under circumstances not amounting to aggravated murder, murder, or manslaughter, a person causes the death of another while intentionally or knowingly attempting, with unlawful force or violence, to do bodily injury to another.”  “Another” means any victim, including a sports official.

Salt Lake County prosecutors reportedly believe that the facts would not support a charge more serious than homicide by assault in Mr. Portillo’s case, but Utah’s Criminal Code also includes a wide range of other general-application statutes that would apply where the victim is a sports official.  From relatively less serious crimes to relatively more serious ones, these statutes criminalize harassment (a class B misdemeanor); threat of violence (a class B misdemeanor); assault (a class A or class B misdemeanor); stalking (a class A misdemeanor or third degree felony); aggravated assault (a third degree or second degree felony); manslaughter (a second degree felony); and murder (a first degree felony).

Why New Criminal Statutes are Potentially Counter-Productive

The problem is not that most states lack criminal statutes specifically targeting violence against sports officials.  The problem is that police, prosecutors and courts tend not to arrest, indict, or impose meaningful punishment on many assailants under general-application statutes already on the books in every state.  Existing criminal statutes already protect sports officials, provided only that authorities summon the will to enforce them more often against assailants who remain unmoved by their sports programs’ efforts to educate about the metes and bounds of civil conduct.

The root cause of the problem is tepid enforcement, not insufficient laws.  Statutes aimed specifically at criminal violence against sports officials are potentially counter-productive because enacting yet more rarely-applied statutes may produce false confidence that we have taken meaningful measures. A criminal statute, however, remedies no problem and protects no one unless police, prosecutors and judges actually enforce its terms in appropriate cases.

The Magnitude of the Danger

Counseling against new legislation does not belittle the seriousness of violence against sports officials.  According to the NASO, last month’s Utah soccer case is only the second known homicide against a youth sports official arising from the conduct of a game.  Non-homicidal assaults against youth league referees and umpires do not happen often, but they do happen. And they seemingly happen more often these days as more and more families skid toward the line between healthy partisanship and rabid violence in the youth sports pressure cooker.  Ricardo Portillo’s oldest daughter says that her father had suffered rib and leg fractures in two prior on-field attacks, but that he loved soccer and refused his family’s entreaties to stop officiating. 

Press reports of so-called “referee rage” appear regularly, but youth sports observers know that the situation is even more serious than the headlines would suggest because many incidents go unreported in the media unless someone is arrested or seriously injured. During and after games, youth sports officials have been punched, kicked, shoved, slapped, choked, head-butted, spat on and stalked.  Parents and coaches have spewn obscenities, made officials run a gauntlet to leave the field, followed officials to their cars, destroyed their property and leveled threats against them and their families. 

The risk of physical injury has become serious enough that some youth league officials have begun carrying cell phones on the field for quick calls to the police.  One official says that he arrives early to his assigned games so he can park close to the exit and tell security guards in advance the section of the field he will leave from; then he removes his whistle immediately when the game ends so no irate parent or coach can grab it and try to choke him.  NASO now offers insurance to youth league officials for “injuries suffered when an official is the victim of an assault and/or battery by a spectator, fan or participant.” Officials’ training classes in various sports typically include instruction about how to manage physically or verbally abusive confrontations.

Many youth sports programs lack qualified referees and umpires because they cannot find enough adults willing to endure abuse from parents and coaches.   As one NASO official explained, “[i]t’s not worth risking your life for $50 a game.”  With the supply of adult officials dwindling, some programs have enlisted teenagers, many of whom quit once they or their parents begin fearing for their safety and sensibilities. 

In fact, teenage officials often bear the brunt when parents and coaches see them as easy targets and think they can get away with verbal or physical abuse. In perhaps the latest nationally reported assault on a youth sports official, a 43-year-old manager of a 10-12-year-old New Jersey Little League team was charged earlier this month with two counts of assault for slapping a 17-year-old umpire who had ejected him from a game.  

Officials deserve the same assurance of personal safety from unlawful violence that every other youth sports participant deserves. It should not take a homicide before the criminal justice system responds in appropriate cases.  Risks to officials’ personal safety have grown sufficiently serious that part of the response to violence must lie in criminal prosecution.  The preferred prosecutorial tools are existing general-application statutes, and not new statutes that, specific to officials, might deflect attention from the real problem and contribute relatively little to meaningful solutions. 

 

[Sources: Sam Borden, A Whistle, a Punch, and a Soccer Referee Is Dead, N.Y. Times, May 7, 2013; Utah Criminal Code § 76-5-209; National Association of Sports Officials, Legislation Affecting Sports Officials, http://www.naso.org/Resources/Legislation/LegislationStatus.aspx; NASO, State Legislation Aimed at Protecting Sports Officials from Assaults, http://www.naso.org/Resources/Legislation/StateLegislation.aspx; Stephanie Loder, Berkeley Little League Manager Charged With Hitting Teen Umpire, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, May 2, 2013; Douglas E. Abrams, The Challenge Facing Parents and Coaches in Youth Sports: Assuring Children Fun and Equal Opportunity, Villanova Sports & Entertainment Law Journal, vol. 8, p. 253 (2002)]