Crying foul: Bills would toughen penalties for assaulting, threatening sports officials

  • RICK OGATA/Special to the Tribune-Herald An umpire officiates during a UH-Hilo softball game. A pair of bills introduced this legislative session seeks harsher penalties for parents, spectators and athletes who assault or terrorize sports officials.

  • SEN. GLENN WAKAI

  • LYLE CROZIER

  • MASON SOUZA

A pair of bills introduced this legislative session by state senators from Oahu seeks harsher penalties for parents, spectators and athletes who assault or terrorize sports officials such as referees, umpires and coaches.

Senate Bill 2549, introduced by Sen. Glenn Wakai, would expand the second-degree assault law to include causing “bodily injury to any sports official in retaliation for or on account of the sport official’s performance of a duty at a sport event.”

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Second-degree assault is a Class C felony punishable by up to five years imprisonment, upon conviction.

And Senate Bill 2612, introduced by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, would establish the offenses of first-, second- and third-degree assault of a sports official — depending upon the severity of the assault — as well as terroristic threatening against a sports official.

His legislation, if passed, would make a conviction for first-degree assault against a sports official a Class B felony punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment. Second-degree assault against a sports official and terroristic threatening against a sports official would be Class C felonies with a potential five-year prison term. Third-degree assault against a sports official would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

Wakai said he introduced his measure after talking with officials of the Hawaii High School Athletic Association.

“They were telling me they now have high school football games on Fridays and Saturdays, instead of just Fridays, because they don’t have enough officials,” Wakai said Friday. “And as I dug deeper into why they don’t have enough officials, they said they were losing officials due to (officials) just being tired of being assaulted verbally and physically by fans. And that is just so unacceptable.

“So in an effort to try and protect our officials, and to enhance the love of the game, I introduced a bill that is going to severely penalize those who take out their frustrations against our sports officials.”

Wakai said he introduced the same measure, unsuccessfully, in 2016.

“We’re losing sight of the love of sports, when fans take it upon themselves — as well as players, as well as coaches — where their frustration turns into the antithesis of sportsmanship,” he said. “We need to regain the civility on our fields and on our courts in this state.”

Lyle Crozier, executive director of the Big Island Interscholastic Federation, the sanctioning body for high school sports in Hawaii County, is in favor of the legislation, saying it’s needed due to the escalation of bad and potentially dangerous behavior of parents and fans at sporting events.

“It seems like it’s getting worse every year,” Crozier said.

In 2017, Greg Tartamella, the father of a Kaiser High School football player, was caught on cellphone video assaulting the Honolulu high school’s then-head football coach, Arnold Martinez. Tartamella was sentenced last year to four years probation for second-degree assault, first-degree terroristic threatening and two counts of harassment.

In Kona in 2005, basketball referee Mason Souza was attacked by Kainoa Abril, then an 18-year-old senior at Konawaena High School, after he and a Waiakea High School player were ejected from a game.

Abril, who died in a 2011 moped collision, was shown in a video that went viral, slamming into the waist and knees of Souza in an unsuccessful attempt to tackle the then-41-year-old referee. Abril then latched on to Souza’s right leg, while Konawaena coaches attempted to pry Abril loose.

Police investigated the incident, but no criminal charges were filed.

Souza, who still officiates high school and college basketball, said he thinks passage of legislation aimed at protecting sports officials is “way overdue.” He said there’s “no control” over parents and other relatives who harass, threaten or assault sports officials.

“At the high school level, even at the children level, people watching the games are parents, uncles, aunties, sisters, brothers, cousins — so it’s more personal, right?” Souza said. “At the college level, you don’t see as much of that, because most of the fans, that’s not their children. But at the high school level and below, it becomes personal, and they don’t know when to draw the line, and that’s the issue.

“Back in the day, once the game was over, it’s over. Now, the adults think their kids can be college basketball players or college baseball players, or they could even be going to the pros. And they see themselves playing the game instead of watching the kids play. That’s the problem.”

Souza said he thinks social media exacerbates the situation.

“Back in the day, you make a mistake, it’s over, it’s done. Now, it’s on video,” Souza said. “Everything that is videotaped … it’s there. So you make a mistake, we get nailed for it as officials, you know, even at the college level.”

Souza also said he thinks schools should increase security at sporting events.

“You go to the mainland for games, and there’s security — and they’re watching the fans in case something happens,” Souza said. “We don’t have that here.”

Crozier and Souza agreed with Wakai that increased pressure on officials has caused a shortage of willing game arbiters.

“We can’t get enough officials; they get threatened and yelled at during the game. So we’ve got a shortage right now,” Crozier said. “I think we’ve got to do something. Hopefully, the bill will pass, and it will help the situation.”

Both bills were referred to the Judiciary Committee, which hasn’t scheduled a hearing on either measure.

Wakai said since both are single-committee referral measures, he’s hopeful his bill will be heard later in the session.

“I’ve been in this game long enough to know that you’re optimistic in the first quarter, and who knows what happens in the fourth quarter,” he said. “I’m the same this year as I was in 2016 in seeing the necessity for this, seeing the merits of this — but it’s ultimately a team effort in trying to get the ball across the goal.

“But I’m hopeful that this is going to be the year when we protect our sports officials.”

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The Tribune-Herald also reached out to Dela Cruz, who didn’t respond in time for this story.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.