Stiffer penalties await those who harass officials

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 9, 2002

Sports Editor

Picture this if you would:

A boy playing baseball is called out on strikes.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

His father responds with a verbal attack on the home plate umpire.

After the game, the father confronts the umpire again, heading the man off before he’s able to reach his car. The boy who struck out just wants to go home or join his teammates at the nearest fast food joint for a hamburger. The confrontation gets physical. A punch is thrown and the father winds up in court facing assault charges.

The son begins to wonder when the game he used to love stopped being fun.

The umpire wonders why he even volunteered for the abuse.

The father just wonders what happened.

Less you think this is a fairy tale, the scenario described above could just as easily happen in Troy, Alabama. It’s happened and is still happening across the country. Last year Thomas Junta killed his son’s hockey coach and is now facing a 10-year sentence for manslaughter. Just recently a 26-year old parent put a 76-year-old umpire in a headlock and held on until the old man passed out.

"That’s just crazy," said Troy Parks and Recreation Director Dan Smith about the incident which took place in Florida.

Now Dan Smith is spreading a message of zero tolerance for fans, parents or coaches who verbally or physically attack any umpire at a recreation league baseball or softball game.

And he’s got the law to back him up. In January, the Alabama State Legislature passed a law making it a crime "to harass, menace or assault sports officials."

"We want people to know that the law is in place and we will not hesitate to call the police and do whatever," Smith said.

Smith reiterated that no incidents of physical confrontations have taken place in Troy this youth league season, but he feels parents and coaches need to understand the consequences of any action they direct toward an umpire.

"While we have not had a serious problem ever in Troy with this, I have seen and I have been told of situations at all of our ball games and parks where the parents, coaches and fans have become a little too excited," said Smith. "And I think if people were familiar and aware of what this new law is for the State of Alabama, they would think twice before they said anything that could land them in jail."

According to Sgt. Benny Scarbrough, the Troy Police Department’s public information officer, a ‘sports official’ is defined as, "any person involved in the supervision of the rules at an athletic contest, such as an umpire or referee, or a person involved in the supervision of the event’s participants, such as a coach."

"What this law does in increase the punishment for both harassment and assault," said Scarbrough. "I think it’s something people should realize."

With the new law in place, the penalty for harassment of an umpire or coach is now a Class B misdemeanor which could result in up to six months of jail time. Also, the crime of assault is now a Class C felony and carries with it a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

Scarbrough said it’s not uncommon for the Troy Police to be called out to a ball game, but it usually happens when various tournaments are being held at the Troy Sportsplex.

"As far as a local Dixie ball game we haven’t had a problem," he said. "But it’s when the tournaments start, when other teams come from different locales and the game isn’t going their way and they start to take it out on the umpires, when we’ve had problems. What they’ve done with this new law, however, is combat that and say we’re going to bring this back down to a normal level."

Smith wants people to keep the game in perspective. He realizes that in most incidents, it’s just a case of "good people gone bad." He can empathize with parents who only want success for their child because his own son Jake is playing Dixie Youth baseball this season.

"Youth sports can bring out the best and worst in anybody, myself included," Smith said. "There’s been times where I’ve been watching my son’s games and my blood pressure has just sky-rocketed. But I try to be very cautious about how I act, not only because I want to set a good example in my job, but also for my son. I don’t want to show a bad attitude and yell something at a coach or umpire. Because the bottom line is that it’s the kids who are usually the first ones embarrassed when this happens."

As for parents who choose to degrade their own children at these ball parks, Smith also has a message for them.

"A parent came up to me in Wal-Mart and told me how awful another parent was acting. What she was doing was verbally abusing and ridiculing her own daughter. It was embarrassing to this parent that adults would act this way," said Smith. "That’s not what we want. We want this to be as positive experience for the children as we can make it.

"Our parks are going to be professional. They’re going to be safe and we’re going to uphold the law as far as protecting our fans, our players, our coaches and our umpires. I hope it (the new law) never is applied. But if it’s necessary it will be a beneficial course of action for those parties that need it."