The umpire strikes back: Ohio bill would make assaulting sports referees a felony

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — New bipartisan legislation in the Ohio General Assembly seeks to ensure that umpires and referees around the state can get home safe.

Two companion bills, House Bill 208 and Senate Bill 118, would each raise the penalty for assaulting a sports official while on the job from a misdemeanor to a fifth-degree felony, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine.

While the legislation is intended to apply most to those who officiate high-school and youth leagues, it would apply to referees and umpires all the way up to the major-league level, said state Reps. Bill Roemer and Joe Miller, the co-sponsors of HB 208.

The two lawmakers each argued in separate interviews that the tougher punishment is a matter of fairness. It’s already a felony in Ohio to assault teachers, coaches, school administrators and bus drivers, Roemer noted, but at a game, “the person that’s most likely to get assaulted is the umpire.”

In addition, they said, soccer referees have told lawmakers that their ranks are so thinned out that some games around the state have had to be canceled because no one’s available to call the game. Roemer, a Richfield Republican, said the hope is that this bill would help ease the concerns of those worried about officiating a game.

“We want to make sure that the people who officiate – really, in many cases, it’s almost a volunteer activity – that they are well-protected,” Roemer said.

Roemer, who has umpired baseball games for at least 20 years, and Miller, a longtime basketball referee, each said that while they’ve faced their share of verbal abuse over the years, they have never been physically assaulted.

However, Roemer said that when his son (now a minor-league baseball umpire) called a game at age 16, a disgruntled coach blocked the exit to the field with his truck and refused to let him leave. Roemer also pointed to recent incidents in Michigan and Georgia in which referees were assaulted.

Miller, an Amherst Democrat, said he’s heard stories of other umpires who have taken huge amounts of abuse.

“We just have too many adults that are bringing bad behavior to the sporting arena, and then they’re directing it at officials, umpires, referees and such,” Miller said.

Roemer said the bill is supported by Ohio High School Athletic Association Executive Director Jerry Snodgrass, as well as referee and umpire associations.

However, it’s still unclear how likely either the House and Senate bills are to pass the General Assembly. State Sen. Kristina Roegner, a Hudson Republican, is sponsoring the Senate legislation.

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