Bill aims to curb abuse of referees
By MICHAEL SANDLER, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- Lester Barr had a rule. Throughout his 54 years of sports officiating, he refused to tolerate profanity on the field.
So when a cluster of extreme vulgarities was aimed at him last year during a co-ed, adult league softball game in Coconut Creek, Barr tossed the player out.
What followed went well beyond his distaste for slurs.
Barr said he was spit on. Then he was grabbed from behind and forced to the ground with a choke hold, police said. Within seconds, he was unconscious.
"Sooner or later, we are going to see an official get killed -- shot or knifed to death by a ballplayer or parent," said Barr, 75.
Two Florida lawmakers have proposed legislation they think can quell the rancor.
The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Mandy Dawson, D-Fort Lauderdale, and Rep. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, would punish anyone who physically assaults a sports official with a fine of as much as $10,000 and a prison term of as long as three years.
That includes fans, players, coaches and parents, from Little League all the way to the pros.
Charges could be levied as long as the incident occurred within the confines or immediate vicinity of an athletic facility. The penalties would be in addition to any criminal charges and would not require a formal complaint by the victim, which is a necessary element for prosecuting assault crimes in most cases.
Some lawmakers question whether Florida needs a special law protecting sports officials. But similar laws already exist in nearly a dozen states, including California and Pennsylvania. In some states, hitting a sports official is on par with assaulting a police officer.
Sobel worries that without such legislation, the state soon could find itself without enough referees and umpires.
"The message here is keep your hands to yourself," Sobel said. "These games are for fun."
The National Association of Sports Officials has been pushing such legislation for 20 years. It says violence is a real problem at all levels of games.
"We are not trying to lock up a soccer mom who loses it," said Bob Still of the association. "We are giving prosecutors enough leverage to make it a serious enough offense so a person won't laugh this off."
Officials aren't always the target. In the most violent incident associated with youth sports, a Massachusetts man killed another parent in a dispute over a rough hockey game in July 2000. Thomas Junta repeatedly slammed another man's head into a concrete floor. He is serving six to 10 years in a Massachusetts state prison.
More often, fans, coaches or players go after referees or umpires. They follow them off the field and into the parking lot. They key their cars. They make threatening telephone calls to their homes.
Sometimes they leave scars. In 1998, a referee in the San Francisco Soccer and Football League had a piece of his ear bitten off by an angry fan who followed him into a pedestrian tunnel at intermission.
And it happens in the Tampa Bay area. An assistant baseball coach at Jefferson High School in Tampa grabbed an umpire by the throat and threw a punch at him during a game in 1997.
Sobel drafted the bill after hearing about the choking incident involving Barr, a retiree who was earning $19 to officiate the softball game on March 17, 2002.
Coconut Creek police charged Charles J. Mitchell, 35, of Boca Raton, with aggravated battery on the elderly, a first-degree felony, in the assault on Barr. The outcome is pending in Broward County.
Police said Mitchell became enraged after Barr called one of his teammates out at second base. Mitchell took the field and shouted a string of obscenities at Barr, who asked him to leave the game.
Barr said Mitchell spit in his face. When Barr turned to wipe it off, Mitchell grabbed him from behind and began choking him, police said. Several players had to pull him off, then Mitchell fled the scene.
"When he came at me, I told him to stop," Barr said. "My words were, 'Please stop.' He just refused."
Mitchell said he was acting in self-defense. He intends to plead not guilty.
He said the two were arguing over the call when Barr pushed him first.
"While he was in my face, he bumped me with his belly and poked me in the face," Mitchell said.
Mitchell said he pushed Barr back and put his arm around Barr's neck, then they both lost balance and fell.
Mitchell said he left the scene because he feared retaliation from others at the game. He said that days later he delivered flowers and an apologetic note to Barr's home.
He takes issue with the unchecked authority the proposed law would bestow on officials.
"The only problem is who is to regulate the official," Mitchell said. "Who's to say he isn't causing problems and didn't start the incident?"
House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, a basketball and baseball player in high school, has assigned Sobel's bill to four House committees, not a favorable sign for passage. The bill has yet to be assigned in the Senate.
Adding new crimes would add additional costs to Florida's judicial system, said Byrd, who wondered why the state's criminal assault laws aren't sufficient to protect sports officials.
Others also think the proposed law is overkill.
Rep. Ron Greenstein, D-Coconut Creek, a former mayor of the city where Barr was assaulted, said authorities need victims who are willing to file charges, not sweeping legislation that deals with isolated cases.
Terry Riggsbee, a softball umpire for the Hillsborough County Department of Parks and Recreation, said on-field assaults can be difficult to prosecute. He remembers a colleague getting sucker-punched from behind while standing over home plate during a game.
"We wanted him to press charges," he said. "But by the time the police came through, they said probably nothing would come of it if it went to court. He felt it was a waste of time."
Sobel has some experience in this arena. As a softball coach years ago, she was grabbed and shaken by an opposing coach, an imposing figure she said weighed close to 300 pounds.
"It's good to be competitive, but there is a line that needs to be drawn," she said. "When you start hurting people physically, that's the line."
-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Michael Sandler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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