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Bill would make harassing referees a crime

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MADISON (WKOW) -- A state Assembly committee discussed a bill Thursday that would make harassing and assaulting referees and umpires a Class A Misdemeanor.

Supporters say the bill is necessary to address the verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse sports officials endure. It's a problem advocates in the sports officiating community believe is largely responsible for a decline in the number of licensed officials.

"The average age of people entering into this [line of work] is growing," said Jim Myers, who's on the Southern Wisconsin Officials Association board of directors. "People are getting older and young people are not coming into the vocation."

According to the WIAA, an early 2019 report found the amount of licensed officials had declined by 1,300 from where the total sat in 2003.

That report preceded a series of high-profile incidents involved officials in Wisconsin.

A former UW-Rock County basketball coach and his son were charged with attacking a referee during a basketball game in January of 2019.

In February 2019, former Packers coach Mike McCarthy was caught on video berating referees working his stepson's basketball game.

One month later, an indoor soccer referee was attacked while working a match in Brookfield.

Dwight Shelton, the SWOA's Vice President of Membership, said while he hasn't encountered violence in his officiating career, he's experienced extreme vitriol that went far beyond complaining about a questionable call.

"One example I'll give you, and I won't give time, place, or school but when you're told 'we hope you die in your car on the way home,' that doesn't sit real well," Shelton said.

The Assembly's Judiciary Committee held a hearing for the bill Thursday. It included testimony from Barry Mano, the founder and president of the Racine-based National Association of Sports Officials.

The bill is expected to eventually make its way to the desk of Governor Tony Evers should it receive votes before the full Senate and Assembly. Republicans and Democrats from both chambers have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.

Under Wisconsin law, a Class A Misdemeanor carries a maximum sentence of nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine.

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A. J. Bayatpour

Reporter, WKOW 27

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