Long Island sports officials, referees and umpires are urging lawmakers to pass a bill proposed in the State Legislature that would stiffen penalties for spectators and coaches who abuse referees. They say the law, if passed, could help curb the verbal abuse directed at referees and help stave off the steep decline in their ranks.
The bill introduced in September by state Sen. Rich Funke (R-Rochester) would make it a felony to physically attack a referee and carry a maximum seven-year prison term upon conviction. A person who threatens to attack a referee -- or spits on them during a verbal attack -- could face a misdemeanor harassment charge that carries a three-month jail sentence upon conviction.
"I think this is long overdue," said Maureen Allmendinger, a longtime field hockey and girls lacrosse official in Suffolk. "There’s no reason not to do this.”
Currently, assaults of referees would likely be classified as “simple assaults,” a misdemeanor. Funke said the purpose of the bill is to show referees they are valued and protected at a time when many sports leagues nationwide are struggling to find people to fill those roles.
“We’re losing officials because of the fear of being assaulted," said Frank Nocerino, the president of Nassau high school sports referees, officials and umpires in all sports. "I’m definitely in favor of a stiff penalty.”
Newsday reported in May that there has been a sharp drop in the number of people willing to officiate high school sports on Long Island. Officials attribute the decline to the verbal abuse the referees regularly face.
The Newsday analysis showed that Nassau County has been losing an average of 43 officials a year since the 2011-12 school year. In the same seven-year span, Suffolk County has been losing an average of about 25 officials a year.
The governing bodies of high school sports in Nassau and Suffolk support the proposed legislation.
“Fans have no right to verbally or physically abuse a referee,” said Tom Combs, who oversees Suffolk school sports. “They should be punished to the full extent of the law, hopefully this will influence other fans not to do the same.”
Pat Pizzarelli, who runs school sports in Nassau, added: “It’s absolutely absurd for people to assault officials based on their judgment in high school or middle school athletics. It all starts with the verbal abuse and some people think they can take it to the next step. Maybe this will make them think twice.”
Funke’s bill has the support of New York Public High School Athletic Association, the state's governing body for public school sports.
"We want our officials to know they are working in a safe environment and fans will be held responsible for unacceptable behavior," NYSPHSAA executive director Robert Zayas said.
Funke said he was motivated to introduce the bill because the high school sports officials he knows have told him about an increase in verbal abuse and the decline in their ranks.
“I’ve witnessed it myself as the years have gone on, people are getting more intense,” Funke said. “A kid can drop a pass or miss a free throw, but if a ref misses a call it’s the end of the world for some of the parents. People just can’t dial it back.”
Funke said 21 states have passed similar legislation protecting officials, and he’s hopeful doing so in New York will help stave off the declining number of referees across the state. The bill was first introduced in 2012 but did not receive enough support to pass.
According to the National Association of Sports Officials, a national survey of more than 17,000 referees in 2017 found that more than 70 percent of new officials quit within three years because of verbal abuse.
On Long Island, sports referees said physical assaults are rare, but the threat of one remains a constant fear. Unruly spectators and belligerent coaches can create a tense environment for umpires.
“A stiffer penalty is going to make the officials feel like, 'Hey, now we have the law on our side,' " Nocerino said.
There are several significant hurdles facing the bill. It will need to pass the Senate and then the Assembly, both of which are Democrat-controlled. Funke is a Republican.
"We’ve got to get other senators and other assembly members on board,: Funke said. "I will try to impress upon my partners in government that this is an increasing problem and it will one day affect their kids in their high schools. If we can't get officials to officiate games, it's not going to be good."
Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) said he hasn’t read the bill’s specific language, but he is in favor of increasing penalties for those who assault or threaten a referee.
“There should be serious consequences, including criminal consequences, if somebody is going to be beating up referees,” he said, “particularly if our kids are witnessing all of this.”