Referees Andy Milligan and Michael Porpora can share story after story of being menacing and harassed as referees.
Porpora, who has officiated everything from youth to professional sports for 42 years, described an incident from when he was 17 years old. He said if an off-duty sheriff’s deputy hadn’t been there to help him, he would have been beaten up after a game.
“I got out of there, shaking, crying, getting home, wondering if I did the right thing, made the right call,” Porpora did.
Milligan, a longtime soccer player, instructor and referee, described an incident from last year where a parent came up to him after a boys’ high school soccer game.
“He let me know that if his son had to sit out the two-game suspension for being ejected, that he was going to come and get me,” Milligan said.
The men have no shortage of stories of abuse. What they do have is a critical shortage of qualified referees in northeast Ohio. Milligan said more than three quarters of referees leave after two to three years.
“The reason why these people are stepping off the field is because [of] the abuse that they take from the spectators and sometimes coaches that just don’t respect what they’re trying to do,” Milligan said.
State lawmakers are taking steps to try to deter people who want to do harm to sports officials. Milligan and Porpora initially met with Sen. Kristina Roegner (R-District 27), who introduced Senate Bill 118. Rep. Bill Roemer (R-District 38) and Rep. Joe Miller (D-District 56) then introduced House Bill 208. Both bills seek to make assaulting a sports official a fifth-degree felony.
“What we’re hoping to do is not have a single person ever charged under this bill,” said Rep. Bill Roemer, who spent more than 25 years as an umpire himself. “We’re hoping that what this does is, that this sets a standard where parents, spectators, coaches and players all know that assault is a fifth-degree felony of a sports official, and it really takes down that tone of verbal harassment, and it really benefits our officials.”
Under Ohio law, assault is generally classified as a first-degree misdemeanor, unless it rises to a certain level of harm and then can be classified as felonious assault, according to Michael Benza, a senior instructor of criminal law at Case Western Reserve University. However, the law already provides for an enhanced penalty for assault against other groups, such as school teachers or coaches.
“The sanction of going to prison or being on probation for a period of time may hopefully cause people to think twice before they start attacking the referees,” Benza said.
Benza noted that enhancing the penalty for assault on a specific group can eventually lead to additional groups of people seeking that enhanced punishment for assaults on them, until assault against virtually anyone becomes a felony.
As someone who does community coaching himself, Benza said he believes it’s not just umpires and referees who face harassment, but coaches, too, especially volunteer coaches.
Roemer said 21 other states already have this type of protection in place for sports officials.
Milligan, who’s a certified official through the U.S. Soccer Federation and the Ohio High School Athletic Association, said sports officials deserve that extra level of protection.
“The person that’s at the center of controversy, the one that’s most vulnerable walking to their car at the end of the day, is the sports official,” Milligan said.
It’s not just about protecting adults, though. Milligan and Porpora described instances of teenage sports officials working youth sport games who faced abuse, including a story about Milligan's teenage daughter, who refereed a U10 girls’ game and had to eject a coach for being “belligerent and blatantly rude.”
While the bills at the Statehouse would apply to all sports officials at all levels of play, they are aimed primarily at youth sports.
“We know that this all starts at the youth level, where parents and spectators just think that they can come out and vent their frustrations against and towards the referees that are out there,” Milligan said.
Milligan said many local clubs and sports associations have “zero-tolerance” policies in place, letting people know that if they behave badly toward sports officials, they won’t be welcomed back.
Right now, a sports official's only recourse might be reporting bad behavior to the association that assigned the referee to a specific game, according to Milligan and Porpora.
“You’ve got parents that think an under-five soccer game is the World Cup final,” Porpora said. “They count goals and they want to keep score and keep records. It’s not about that. It’s about the development of children, not the abuse of referees, but unfortunately the referees are targeted.”
In a statement, Jerry Snodgrass, executive director of the Ohio High School Athletic Association, wrote, “We support any legislation that supports the protection of our officials. The efforts by our legislators to step forward to help protect a vital part of educational athletics speaks volumes to their dedication to keep this component of the educational system intact.”
The OHSAA and National Federation of State High School Associations wrote a post in January 2019 entitled “ DEAR MOM AND DAD: COOL IT ,” in which they asked parents to “cool it” with abuse of referees and to remember that youth sports are about more than just winning.