Sports fans, athletes and Little League parents might think twice before going after a referee or coach if a bill aimed at protecting the ref gets through the Michigan Legislature.
State Sen. Morris Hood III, D-Detroit, decided to sponsor the bill after refs from Southeast Michigan approached him following an incident in Livonia where soccer referee John Bieniewicz died days after being punched during an adult match.
“They were concerned about having some protections and that had to be a part of it,” Hood said. “They had been followed out to parking lots and harassed during games. They’ve been followed home and gotten threatening e-mails and (tweets).”
The bill would make assaulting a referee a felony punishable by up to three years in prison and a $10,000 fine. It wouldn’t preclude a person from being charged with another crime as well — such as assault or even murder — but would just add another criminal statute that could be used.
Michigan would join 23 other states that have laws on the books regarding assaults on referees, according to the Wisconsin-based National Association of Sports Officials, which has been advocating for such laws since 1984.
The Michigan bill has support from Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton, who also officiates high school football.
“I think that sports officials put themselves in harm’s way because they’re in the middle of heated confrontations,” he said. “There’s always an enhanced possibility that a sport’s official is going to be victimized.”
Leyton said he think it’s important for people to know there would be an enhanced penalty for people getting out of control.
“I think it will be a deterrent,” he said. “They’ll think twice knowing that they could get a felony for doing this.”
There are instances where people have been charged with misdemeanor assault, instead of a felony charge, in cases involving sports officials, including a case in Genesee County about eight years ago. A person there was accused of assaulting a man officiating a hockey game and was charged with a misdemeanor, Leyton said.
He has wanted a bill like the one introduced Tuesday for years and said support grew after Bieniewicz, 44, of Westland was struck last June.
Witnesses said Bassel Saad, 36, had been complaining about a call and was about to be ejected when he sucker-punched Bieniewicz, immediately knocking the father of two unconscious.
Saad was charged with second-degree murder in Bieniewicz’s death. His trial is scheduled to begin next month in Wayne County Circuit Court.
Hood, the bill’s sponsor, said he’s not looking to have vocal parents or fans jailed for questioning a call.
“We want to use it as a deterrent before anything happens,” he said. “Complaining is fine, but when you’re going on in an aggressive manner, and we saw that in the soccer incident, taking it to that next step is the issue we have to stop.”
Carlos Folino, administrator for soccer’s Michigan Referee Committee, said the pressure for success on athletes is growing as parents invest thousands in their kids with travel leagues.
“We get everything from people telling us we’re the worst person in the world to what happened last summer in Livonia,” he said. “Abuse and assault is growing as parents are putting a lot of pressure on kids.
“This bill is a great idea, so people can realize that a moment of stupidity could cost them three years in jail,” Folino added.
The bill was just introduced this week and has not had a hearing yet.
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