When Verbal Abuse of a Teen Official Becomes Criminal Child Endangerment
By Doug Abrams
Every so often, a newspaper column sends a powerful, unforgettable message. On March 14, 2008 – more than five years ago – the Meridian Booster, a small newspaper in Alberta, Canada, carried a letter-to-the-editor that has stayed with me because it describes unrelenting verbal abuse of a local teen as he did his job.
“I watched,” recounted the letter writer, “as two grown men in their 30s and 40s bullied a 15-year-old boy while he was at work. For more than an hour, the men were frantically yelling and hollering, waving their arms, calling the boy dumb, and when all of that didn’t work they resorted to glaring menacingly at the kid.”
“When the boy’s shift was over,” the writer continued, “I watched him leave his work area, change out of his uniform and go home. This place is off limits to the general public, but I watched as one of these men aggressively barged right into this changing area and continued to yell at and berate the boy until the boy and his co-workers asked the man to leave. After this man left, I watched as he went over to his friend (a prominent business owner in our area) and a woman who had joined them. The two men and woman told each other how justified they felt to confront this kid, patting each other on the back and planning their next moves.”
The targeted boy’s job? Refereeing a youth hockey game between two teams of elementary school kids. The two adult bullies? Coaches of one of the teams.
“They Think It’s Life and Death
This column concerns the law’s response to verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse that some parents and coaches inflict on teen officials during and after games. One act of slapping or punching the official can constitute criminal assault warranting prosecution, and persistent verbal abuse during and after games can amount to criminal child endangerment.
In just the past month or so, several newspaper articles chronicle adult manhandling of teen officials. On May 2, for example, the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press reported the arrest of a 43-year-old manager of a 10-12-year-old New Jersey Little League baseball team. The manager was charged with two counts of assault for slapping a 17-year-old umpire who had ejected him from a game.
On May 7, the Sunshine Coast Daily (Queensland, Australia) wrote about a father who watched his son, a 14-year-old referee, absorb verbal abuse from an adult soccer fan and then, in the next game, from a coach who accused the boy of biased calls on the field. “I don’t think they see the youth in the kids,” the father said, “They think it’s life and death when in fact it’s youth sport.”
On May 18, the Santa Clarita (Calif.) News reported a 34-year-old coach’s arrest for assaulting a 17-year-old referee during a 12-14-year-old parks and recreation department flag football game. The coach walked onto the field, yelled about the referee’s call, and struck the boy in the face, knocking him to the turf.
On May 20, the Charleston (S.C.) Post & Courier wrote about a teen umpire who was “in tears as he took off his equipment after the game, because one of the coaches had given him such a hard time” during a recreation league baseball game. A fellow 16-year-old umpire wondered aloud whether the few dollars he earns each game is worth the verbal abuse hurled at him by parents and coaches who “will do whatever they can to win.”
State of Denial
It is simply too easy to dismiss news reports about abuse of teen officials by reassuring ourselves that “only a minority of adults step out of line,” and that “most adults respect the bounds of decent behavior.” I happen to agree that abusive adults do constitute the minority, but I suspect that media coverage alone actually understates the number of adults who step over the line. Many readers of this column doubtlessly can recall embarrassing incidents that never reached the local papers because, without someone arrested or seriously injured, the abusive confrontation seemed commonplace and not newsworthy.
I showed this column in draft form to Neil Jackson, one of our University of Missouri second-year law students and a member of my squirt hockey team 12 years ago. Speaking about high school students who umpire youth baseball games, Neil said that “personal friends of mine have quit on the spot. . . . I have seen not only coaches, but also parents harass the umpire in the parking lot. I have been informed about one particular umpire, a very close personal friend of mine, who was challenged to a fight in the parking lot after he told a parent to calm down or leave the premises. The high school players are being harassed by the same small percentage of parents day in and day out. From my experience, the umpires must ‘gear up’ when umpiring a specific team to deal with parents who are out of control. . . . All the high school umpires want to do is get through the game without the coach or parents of one of the teams making a scene.”
Endangering the Welfare of a Child
In extreme cases of adult abuse of teen officials, the response may include criminal prosecution because teen officials deserve the same protection that children and adolescents receive outside of sports. Children’s games hold no immunity from the standards of child protection that apply on Main Street, at home, or anyplace else in town.
When a parent or coach strikes an official (teen or otherwise), the adult has committed a criminal assault. When an adult levels incessant verbal harassment at a teen official during or after a game, the adult may sooner or later cross the line that separates healthy competition from the crime of endangering the welfare of a child.
Criminal endangerment statutes are broadly worded to enable authorities to reach a wide range of conduct that compromises the strong public interest in child protection. In New York, for example, a person commits the crime of endangering the welfare of a child (a class A misdemeanor) when “[h]e or she knowingly acts in a manner likely to be injurious to the physical, mental or moral welfare of a child less than seventeen years old.”
Under the New York statute, the “person” prosecuted may be the child’s parent or anyone else, and the offense may be committed at home or in the community. Injury to a child’s physical welfare may stem from one act, such as the punches and slaps that led to the recent arrests in New Jersey and California. Injury to a child’s mental welfare often stems from a pattern of belittling, derision or other verbal abuse; in extreme cases, the unrelenting torrent that adults sometimes unleash on teen officials during and after games would fit the bill. Because the test is likelihood of injury, the prosecutor does not have to prove that actual harm occurred.
As I discussed in a recent column, many youth leagues report a chronic shortage of qualified adult officials because so many hang up their whistles, unwilling to endure abuse from parents and coaches. With the supply of adult officials dwindling, some leagues have enlisted teens, who often bear the brunt from parents and coaches who see them as easy targets. As Neil Jackson observed, many teenagers quit too once they or their parents grow concerned about their safety and sensibilities. These teens stepped forward to participate in the game and to earn some spending money, not to become fair game for abusive adults.
Except in extreme cases, the better response to adults’ abuse of teen officials would be prompt discipline imposed by the local league or association, which sometimes occurs. When this informal discipline fails or when the abuse is particularly serious, however, the law protects children from adult-inflicted endangerment for a reason.
[Sources: Terra Weaver, Give Young Refs a Break, Meridian Booster (Alberta, Canada), Mar. 14, 2008, p. A5; Perry Smith, Castaic Man Charged With Assaulting Ref in Valencia Flag Football Game, Santa Clarita (Calif.) News, May 18, 2013; Stephanie Loder, Berkeley Little League Manager Charged With Hitting Teen Umpire, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, May 2, 2013; The Ugly Side of Sporting Prejudice, Sunshine Coast Daily (Queensland, Australia), May 7, 2013, p. 4; Teen Umpires Deal With Grown-Ups, Post & Courier (Charleston, S.C.), May 20, 2013, p. 2; N.Y. Penal Law section 260.10]