Foul Bill

I'm looking through the Arizona Capitol Times for some reason, and I see a listing for a legislative House bill that reads:

HB 2161 Sports Officials: Assault.

Hmm. Sounds like a protected-class issue. Reading on:

"HB2161: Assault on a referee, umpire or other sports official engaged in official duties is a high misdemeanor. Sponsor: Rep. Carpenter."

Boiled down, the bill, which has been passed on to committee, suggests that any person who knowingly touches a sports official with "intent to injure, insult or provoke" is subject to six months in jail, which is six times more slammer time than for intending to injure, insult or provoke any other human being except a cop.

And I say to myself, "Hey, I wanted to deck that one umpire!" I think of the ump two weekends ago who made five bad calls in a row against both teams (meaning there was no partisanship), and he was so pathetic that both coaches were commiserating about the guy's stupidity. Then after the sixth horrendous call, he happened to overhear me loudly say to a friend:

"Hey, Mike, I'm guessing we'd be fired immediately for this level of incompetence."

So the bad ump looked back at me and then turned to the coach and yells: "That's a warning!"

So, at that point, I think the guy is both stupid and a rent-a-cop-like bully who loves wearing a uniform and exerting whatever power he can find in life, and my head gets full of things I want to say back. But I don't because I know at some very core level that this would be bad form in front of my 10-year-old and all his friends.

As I cooled down, I told myself that this guy's job is tough, which I know because I've failed at it myself, and this little game here is not a big deal in the scheme of things. Sure, this is the worst ump I've ever seen, but that is not the point. People have bad days. And there is administrative recourse here. File a grievance if you're fired up enough. The guy will be reviewed by one of the gazillion sports organizations in this sports-happy sprawl to see if he is a competent official. I tell myself I'll pursue that option. I'm quietly cheerful the rest of the game. I then forget all about filing a grievance once my 1-year-old craps his pants on the way home.

But later, when I was reading about HB2161 in the Capitol Times, the issue of harsh penalties for provoking or whomping up on the likes of umpires really hit home.

On the one hand, why should these guys get special treatment? Yet on the other, there is that rising tide of incivility in our society that, if not checked by people's sense of common decency, must be checked by legislation and legal ramifications.

It was clear that this bill was worthy of some, um, serious pondering.

I call its sponsor, Representative Ted Carpenter, but he was off in legislative meetings. So I begin calling regional and national experts in such things, as well as the people journalists now annoyingly refer to as "the stakeholders in the issue."

Bob Still, a spokesman for the National Association of Sports Officials, tells me this type of legislation is a big national issue and that Arizona and a couple other states are the next frontier in better protecting umps and refs from this growing tide of incivility. Sixteen states currently have similar legislation!

"The laws are necessary because people are increasingly attacking sports officials," he says. "The thing is: People are attacking the uniform, they are attacking someone who is placed there as an authority figure in a public place. We often are dealing with high levels of emotions, and with the number of people involved, we can become the subject of mob mentalities and near-riot situations."

Though we all saw those two fans jump out of the stands and assault that poor first-base coach last season, such laws aren't directed at the pros, he says. They are intended to protect the umpires and referees at amateur sporting events where parents seem increasingly willing to follow a lone official to his car and beat those blind eyes out of him.

Still says it's becoming increasingly difficult to find people willing to officiate sports events in these hostile environments. He says soccer parents are by far the most dangerous.

This is surprising to me, I say, because I always thought of soccer as a game for wussies and their wussy parents.

Then, duh, I realize what I'm saying. You don't hear the term "baseball hooligan," do you? "Soccer Mom" means "Soccer Hooligan."

I begin to get psyched about pulling those banshees from their Windstars and hauling them off to Tent City.

Still and I go back and forth. I say I understand the desire for this law, but I argue there are already laws in place to punish people for violence. I say there are many other professionals placed in quasi-cop roles in society. Where do we stop?

Do you have any statistics to support this perception that fans are increasingly violent?

No, he says. It's research that's never been done.

Hmmm. Know of anything in Arizona?


So I call Gary Whelchel, the affable and eloquent State Commissioner of Officials for the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

He agrees that soccer officials get more hell than anyone else. There is so much questionable contact in soccer. Same in basketball. Mom and dad see their loved child get bashed. They get angry, and worse can lead to worst.

"That said, we have story after story for many different sports," he tells me. "There is so much more vulgarity, everything. Legislation like this is just another tool we would have that lets us grab with teeth if you do something to a sports official."

Mixed metaphors aside, he gives an example. Right now in Tucson, officials are coming up with a citywide Spectator Code of Conduct following several incidences at Tucson high school games.

I thought, too, of the Show Low-area students yelling, "We pay taxes, yes we do, we pay taxes, how 'bout you?" at the opposing fans from the nearby Apache reservation. It was a three-pointer comedy-wise, but a flagrant technical foul human-dignity-wise.

But does any of this, including the Tucson incidences, have anything to do with anybody in Arizona trying to beat sense into a bad sports official?

No, Whelchel says.

Let me get this straight. So there's been nobody in Arizona, much less the Valley, who's beat up a sports official?

"None that I know of," he says. "But things are definitely rougher verbally. It's just a matter of time. And I don't see why we can't be proactive in addressing a problem instead of waiting for something to happen."

I argued, though, that the lack of any sports official getting pounded in the Phoenix area may suggest another trend:

Whelchel and other leaders in the amateur sports community here have done a hell of a job proactively educating coaches, fans and players on proper sports conduct while also doing a hell of a job teaching local sports officials how to calmly defuse a potentially volatile situation.

And they've taught most umps and refs to put on a thicker skin when they hit the field or court.

I tend to believe this because I see a remarkable level of professionalism by most umpires, a remarkable level of preseason training for coaches and parents and a remarkable amount of civility at most sporting events I attend, even when the rare official is a moron.

Could it be that amateur sports officials in the Valley have actually succeeded in bucking a national trend of incivility with proactive education rather than retroactive punishment?

Whelchel doesn't argue with my observations. But he still says legislation is needed.

Well, okay. Good luck. Maybe you're right.

Eventually, I get a call from Representative Carpenter.

I begin my spiel. Interesting legislation. Lots of issues. Is this the next wave of hate-crime legislation? Is America less civil? Where is the proof of that? Do we really need some sort of quantitative proof of local incidences to provide extra protection? I tell him I'm interested in writing about his bill because I'd imagine that, although it has passed easily in some other states, it would bash up against the state's neo-libertarian conservative bent.

Carpenter listens quietly. I shut up. There's a long pause.

Finally, "Robert, here's the deal," he says. "I just filed that bill as a favor to a constituent. The kids in the government class out at Deer Valley High School wrote it up. It was a project. I don't know what they based it on. I've got to admit I know almost nothing about it.

"I filed it last year," Carpenter continues. "Eight of the kids came down to argue for it as a class thing. I filed it this year again thinking they wanted it again. But I haven't seen the students, or anybody for that matter, come down in support of that."

Uhhh . . .

I say, "But I just talked to the heads of both the state and the national organizations that would be involved with such things, and they said they were very strongly in support of this bill."

He says, "Tell them they need to come down here and tell us that. We haven't seen anybody. I actually suggested the kids do something with bio-diesel, but they gave me this."

Gee, I thought, why would a group of savvy Arizona government students be leery of alt-fuels legislation? But . . . never mind.

Okay, I'll play the media kiosk. Hey, folks, there's a bill currently in the Arizona House of Representatives to make it a higher crime to shove a sports official. If you're a sports official and interested in making it tougher for people to beat you up, go tell Ted Carpenter, the guy who sponsored the bill who knows nearly nothing about the bill.

But you're probably best off not bothering. There's no money behind this thing, you have no paid lobbyists and you have state and national organizations that haven't even called legislators to voice approval for this bill they believe is so important.

Best wait until one of you dies. Then they'll call it "Jim's Law," or whatever, then TV crews will show file photos of Jim's bloody corpse, then senators and representatives will hold press conferences about how there's a little of Jim in all of us. Ted Carpenter will say I told you so. Then the bill will be passed, thanks to much sentimentality and none of the rich legal and ethical debate I believed would be created by this interesting idea.

Is this really how the legislative and democratic process is supposed to work? Like some bad existential play? Called "Waiting for the Dough," perhaps.

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Robert Nelson