Toriano Porter

No roughing the ref: Youth sports officials need protection from hostile fans

Terrence Jackson was assaulted in 2016 as he walked off the court after a competitive youth basketball game in Lawrence.
Terrence Jackson was assaulted in 2016 as he walked off the court after a competitive youth basketball game in Lawrence. Submitted video footage

Officiating the early morning youth basketball game should have been as easy as a Sunday morning stroll. Get in, call a good game and get out.

Instead, the contest almost turned into a physical altercation between a spectator and me.

The nose-to-nose confrontation happened two years ago at a local gym. The man was presumably the parent of a seventh-grade student on a competitive youth basketball team.

He’d already lobbed a slew of disapproving remarks about my officiating at a toxicity level I’d never encountered. The man mouthed discontent seemingly every time my whistle blew against his son’s team.

My skin burned as he continued the verbal assault. Standing with my back to the baseline, everything I’d learned in 10 years as an official on how to deal with unruly spectators went out of my head.

Instead of stopping the game, notifying the gym supervisor or simply switching spots on the floor with my officiating partner, I turned to the man sitting in the bleachers just inches from the court.

We exchanged words unfit for this publication. If not for my partner’s attempt to diffuse the situation, things could have gotten ugly in front of a bunch of 12- and 13-year-old kids. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.

Dallas Bryant wasn’t as lucky.

In January, a 21-year-old man walked onto the court and punched Bryant during the girls junior varsity basketball game he was refereeing at Raytown South High School. The punch knocked Bryant to the ground and sent him to the hospital. The fan was arrested and charged with assault and disorderly conduct. He has a municipal court date scheduled for Feb. 28.

If a Missouri lawmaker gets his way, officials like Bryant would get extra protection from hostile fans. State Rep. Jerome Barnes of Raytown recently introduced a bill that would increase the criminal penalties for people convicted of assaulting a youth sports official.

HB 1725 is long overdue. It would add sports officials to a “special victims” list that includes members of law enforcement, emergency personnel and highway workers.

If approved, Missouri would join 23 other states with laws specifically defining assaults on sports officials as crimes.

Barnes, a Democrat, has at least eight co-sponsors, including two Republicans. The next step will be to get it assigned to a committee, but he is not sure when that will happen.

“That’s up to the speaker,” he said. But it needs to happen quickly.

The case of Terrence Jackson shows Kansas could benefit from similar legislation. Jackson was assaulted in 2016 as he walked off the court after a competitive youth basketball game in Lawrence.

The Kansas City native was embroiled in a heated argument with the mother of a player. The woman’s son joined the argument. Before long, the boy’s father got in on the action.

The men then squared off. Jackson tried to protect himself from blows thrown by both the man and his son, as a bystander captured the incident on video.

The man was charged with misdemeanor assault and battery. He was later fined $1,000, and Jackson was granted an order of protection against him.

“A lot of refs said they are not going to be subjected to an assault without consequences,” Jackson said.

Kansas lawmakers would need to develop their own legislation to address the threat Jackson faced. Misdemeanor assault or battery charges aren’t much of a deterrent, Jackson said.

“They don’t have stiff enough penalties,” he said.

In the interim, it is incumbent upon officials, parents, spectators, gym supervisors, tournament organizers and groups that assign officials to focus on safety.

Over the long term, let’s hope lawmakers on both sides of the state line take steps to improve the experience for everyone involved — especially young athletes.

After all, a healthy, positive experience for them is what youth sports is all about.