Originally created 07/01/00

Statute shields sports officials



Sports officials are being better protected under one of the more than 200 new laws taking effect today.

A strengthening of the law protecting officials in all levels of competition from battery could land irate fans in jail.

The law, which before defined punching or physically abusing officials as a misdemeanor, now defines the crime as a misdemeanor "of a high and aggravated nature."

The statute also applies to people hitting those who are 65 or older, pregnant, on public transit or police officers. The penalty for breaking the law once is a fine of no less than $1,000 or community service.

The second conviction will land a person in jail for no less than 10 days with another $1,000 fine. On the third conviction, the crime becomes a felony.

The change in the language was proposed by Rep. Stanley Watson, D-Decatur, himself once a sports official.

Mr. Watson said protection for officials is needed because fans are getting more involved in the game, sometimes crossing the line.

"We have a problem with people injuring officials," he said. "You can still do the `One, two, three. Kill the referee' thing, but we want to make sure nobody touches the official."

While Mr. Watson said no one incident caused him to ask legislators to change the law, he said he was shocked when an official in LaGrange was attacked by a father and his son. Also in Cobb County, Mr. Watson said a parent berated an official for calling her child out.

Incidents like those are infrequent in Georgia, according to Ralph Swearngin, deputy executive director of the Georgia High School Association, the governing body for officials in the state. But that is no reason not to have a strong law to punish offenders, he said.

"We have a lot of crazies out there who think the price of admission gives them the right to abuse the officials," Mr. Swearngin said.

He said the GHSA mandates all host schools supply security for officials at games, but that schools can do only so much.

"At a varsity football game, you could get police," he said. "But at a baseball game, you usually end up with an assistant principal."

Mr. Swearngin added only three or four incidents have occurred at high school games in his eight-year tenure. The place where battery is most likely to occur these days is at the recreational leagues, he said.

Charlie Beale, recreation director for Columbia County, said officials are treated with respect in his county, but that the new law has been a long time coming.

"I feel it is one of the best things to come about," said Mr. Beale, who officiated high school sports for 25 years.

According to the National Sports Officials Association, Georgia is the 14th state to pass laws regulating the abuse of officials. Bob Still, public relations manager for NASO, said 13 other states, including South Carolina, will debate bills in the next year.

"We have seen these types of cases being prosecuted more, which is good. That's why this law is needed," he said, adding he receives two to three reports a week of officials being physically abused.

Reach Matthew Boedy at (7060-823-3339.