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Assault of officials on the rise

House Bill 2446 would increase penalties for harm against an athletic coach, supervisor or official

March 7, 2011
By JOHN WICKLINE, Staff Writer

A Marshall County delegate is looking to give those who cross the lines dealing with coaches and officials more than just a time-out.

Del. Michael Ferro wants to amend West Virginia 61-2-15a, one that gives just 24 hours in jail to a person convicted of assault or battery of an athletic official, coach, or supervisor. He said he became aware of the light penalty after a football official in his hometown was assaulted following a fifth-grade flag football game.

"We want to protect officials from these irate fans in a hostile environment," Ferro said. "If that official had just been a regular person, (the assailant) would have received a much stiffer penalty."

House Bill 2446 calls the person convicted of the misdemeanor crime to be fined between $50 and $100 and be sentenced to between five days and six months in jail. If the person is convicted of battery on a sports official, the penalty would jump to a fine of between $100 and $500 and a jail sentence of between 10 days and one year.

The bill defines assault as putting a person in fear of his or her safety, while battery is defined as the physical attack.

"I know there have been multiple incidents where officials have been accosted by fans," said John Artimez, an official at the high school and college levels for nearly 20 years. "Usually we just walk on by. But it seems to be getting worse and worse every year. I've been in places where the environment was such that I was concerned about the safety of myself and my crew. It's only a matter of time before somebody is attacked."

Two incidents involving basketball officials have gone through the court systems in central West Virginia in the past decade, one in Barbour County and the other in Upshur County. The Barbour County case was dismissed by a local magistrate, while the Upshur County defendant was found innocent during a jury trial.

"You have magistrates who are elected, and you have a prosecutor who's elected, and most of the time the officials are from outside the county," said Steve Gandee, who has called more than 1,000 games during his career."It's a tough situation. It becomes about the official's bad calls. It's as if the official is on trial."

He said he would like to see signs placed in and around gymnasiums and ball fields, alerting the fans to the penalties. He said even then, that might not keep some from venting their frustrations on coaches or officials.

"But even if we don't get a conviction, that person understands what they have had to go through," he said. "That's a deterrent because they had to fight a battle. The jail time or thought of jail time forces them to get an attorney or play politics to get out of the charge. But they know they went through a process."

Gandee, who is also an attorney, said he has seen the problems of fans and officials being involved in confrontations happen more often in baseball, a place where the officials and fans exit the field at the same time and place as they head to their cars.

"I think the more of a penalty that is out there, it might help in a couple of incidents," he said. "If the public knew more about it, we may have less problems."

Artimez believes cracking down on the behavior of adults by school or league administrators may help alleviate some of the problems.

"Part of the problem is that the players and the fans take on the persona of the coach," he said. "If the coach acts professional, then so do the fans and the players. But if the coach acts like a wacko, the crowd gets wacko."

Ferro said the very nature of supervising or officiating athletic events often puts a person in an adversarial relationship to others. He said during his years as a basketball coach at John Marshall High School, he had discussions that went beyond friendly with parents of a kid who had just been cut from the roster. He's seen referees have to wait in their locker rooms for the crowd to clear the gym after a controversial loss by the home team.

"These people are put into a very difficult situation, and we have to try to protect them," Ferro said, adding that those who blur the lines between right and wrong have never walked a mile in the other guy's shoes.

"People don't realize how difficult a job officiating is," he said. "They've never umpired or blown a whistle."



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