There is a serious high school officials shortage in Oklahoma and everywhere else. Among the reasons is that idiot adults, whether coaches or fans, lose their minds and behave like spoiled children. They harass or threaten officials who didn’t sign up for abuse, and aren’t paid enough to try to withstand it. The officials quit instead.
We covered this last October with the help of Ethan Rolen, president of the Greater Tulsa Officials Association, and Robert Breedlove, a 53-year high school football official from Stillwater.
Breedlove was a wonderful resource. We have kept in touch since, and he sent me an email around New Year’s about Wisconsin legislation aimed at deterring abusive fan behavior toward officials in that state.
A key passage from Scott Bauer’s Associated Press story: “Under current law, harassing or striking someone is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000. Under the bill, any actions that cause harm to a sports official, or put them in fear of being harmed, would be classified as the highest level misdemeanor punishable by up to nine months in jail, a $10,000 fine, or both.”
I thought that was very interesting, so I bopped around the web to see who else had legislation aimed at curbing rotten behavior toward sports officials. Turns out 23 other states do. Oklahoma is one of them.
Oklahoma Statute Title 21 Section 650.1 reads: “Every person who, without justifiable or excusable cause and with intent to do bodily harm, commits any assault, battery, assault and battery upon the person of a referee, umpire, timekeeper, coach, official, or any person having authority in connection with any amateur or professional athletic contest is guilty of a misdemeanor and is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one year or by a fine not exceeding One Thousand Dollars ($1,000) or both such fine and imprisonment.”
The language in Oklahoma’s law, enacted in 1978 according to “Sports Officiating: A Legal Guide,” is typical of other states’, meaning it specifically addresses “bodily harm.”
What’s being proposed in Wisconsin involves harassment, not just assault. That’s more in line with Alabama, whose criminal code specifies “harassment,” “menacing” and “assault” of sports officials. Harassment and menacing can result in misdemeanor charges, while assault can be felonious.
Might it be worth revisiting our 42-year-old statute to consider harassment, particularly given our officials shortage?
I reached out to the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association for feedback. Grant Gower, the OSSAA director of officials, provided this statement: “Our goal is to help protect officials, as well as all participants, at events. Oklahoma was one of the first states to address assault and battery towards an official. I know that Wisconsin has had a movement concerning harassment of officials into becoming a law, but that discussion has not been brought to our attention in Oklahoma.”
Another question: Would stronger or more specific language in our statute be a behavior deterrent to begin with?
“In my 20-plus years I’ve never heard of or seen (the statute) put into practice,” Rolen told me.
The only example I can find is from “Sports Officiating: A Legal Guide,” which mentioned a baseball coach in 1980 being fined $425.
Abusive fans are occasionally ejected from games. Abusive coaches are occasionally suspended. But these cases don’t seem to wind up in court.
“Is it a deterrent? Probably not,” Rolen said, “because most people don’t even know it’s on the books.”
Rolen is aware. He says his officials are aware of their legal recourse should behavior escalate. He also puts a lot of trust in game administrators to extinguish blazes before they rage out of control.
“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know of anybody who has ever been physically attacked,” he said. “I know there have been people that have been held back. There have been moments where officials were afraid they were going to be attacked. But there has been a police officer there to protect them.”
It is safe to assume that folks who have been “held back” reach the level of harassment of game officials. Same with folks asked to leave the venue, something that Rolen said happened twice around the metro last football season and happens more often at basketball games.
“I can tell you if harassment is a misdemeanor, I’ve come across a lot of people who have committed misdemeanors,” Rolen said. “But you also understand they are fans. You don’t want to make a bigger deal out of it than it is in the moment.”
That’s a perfectly reasonable stance. But then this is a critical time for Rolen’s profession. Maybe simply updating language to Oklahoma 21-650.1, or following Wisconsin’s or Alabama’s lead by putting more bite in penalties, might make a difference in behavior, which might make a difference in retention of officials.
“The only positive I could see about revisiting it is it would just get the issue in the public eye again,” Rolen said. “If nothing else, if it was revisited the public would say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’ Just let the public know it’s there, that it is a crime.”