Seminara seeks to help umps, referees facing threats

March 6, 2024

Sports officials looking for new law, penalties to provide protection

By Don Stacom Hartford Courant

For sports referees and umpires in Connecticut, threats and attacks by fans, players and even coaches has become so prevalent that some say the state is overdue to beef up laws to stop them.

“It gets ugly out there, and it’s not right,” said Barry Chasen, an umpire for youth and recreation leagues who has been calling balls and strikes for 59 years.

“I don’t know exactly why it got like this, but these are adults and parents. People started taking it too seriously. Maybe people can’t deal with adversity,” said Chasen, a Simsbury resident. “They’re making (physical) contact with umpires or referees.”

Even though the General Assembly is in the middle of a short session, Chasen and some other Connecticut sports officials are hoping this will be the year they break legislators’ longstanding refusal to pass a new law — or even a harsher penalty — against assaulting referees and umpires.

Chasen is working with three state lawmakers — Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington; Rep. Melissa Osborne, D-Simsbury, and Sen. Lisa Seminara, R-Simsbury — to build support.

He’d favor stiffer penalties for anyone convicted of assaulting a sports official during or immediately after a game, and notes that more than 20 other states have adopted some form of extra punishment.

Previous attempts in Connecticut dating back as far as 2006 have failed, with legislators saying they’re concerned about creating too many special classes of crime victims receiving extra protection — particularly since the attackers already face serious consequences for an assault conviction.

For instance, the defendant in a 2022 assault at an eighth-grade after-school youth football game faces a felony charge. A 32-year-year old man is accused of slamming a football helmet against the victim’s head, knocking him unconscious.

The victim was a coach, not an umpire, but the same law would have applied: The alleged attacker, Christopher Polk, is charged with second-degree assault, a Class D felony.

Sports officials, however, contend that attacks — and the far more common problem, threat of violence — should draw a special penalty. Osborne agreed.
“There has been an idea that ‘an assault is an assault is an assault,” Osborne said. “But assault on particular type of person for their role can impact detrimentally on the profession or position.”

Connecticut had sustained a loss of sports officials even before the Covid pandemic, and the situation has worsened since.

Clasen noted that concern about personal safety is one of the top reasons that umpires and referees cite when they quit, he said.
Four years ago, the CIAC Officials Association wrote an open letter to Connecticut umpires and referees pledging to “support your efforts to enact legislation to further protect sports officials and emphasize to schools the importance of having a plan to ensure the safety of game officials.”

A study by the National Association of Sports Officials shows that 22 other states have either a specially designated criminal charge or an enhanced penalty for attacks against umpires and referees.

Florida, for instance, upgrades charges against an assault defendant when the victim is a referee or umpire.

The charge of aggravated battery, usually a second-degree felony, is raised to a fire-degree felony in such cases. Aggravated assault is elevated from a third-degree felony to a second-degree.

Chasen said sports officials are looking for lawmakers to show their support.

“They can show they care about our safety and our well-being,” he said.