The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) is endorsing proposed legislation that would make either verbal or physical harassment of an official a crime in the state of Wisconsin.

Wisconsin bill LRB 4781, to create a state statute, has received support in the assembly from Reps. Don Vruwink, Todd Novak, Rob Hutton and Lisa Subeck, and in the senate from Sens. Andre Jacque and Jeff Smith.

Organizations supporting the bill include the National Association of Sport Officials (NASO), the Wisconsin Athletic Directors Association (WADA) and the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC).

“The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association is expressing its support of a sponsored bill in the legislature that would make it a Class A misdemeanor to harass or intimidate a sports official in response to action taken or with intent to influence a referee, umpire, judge or anyone serving similar functions,” said Todd Clark, director of communications for the WIAA. 

Currently, it is a Class B forfeiture if an individual harasses, intimidates, strikes, shoves or kicks another individual, or if the individual engages in a course of conduct or repeatedly commits harassing or intimidating behavior with no legitimate purpose.

LRB 4781 creates a new crime for harassment and intimidation of a sports official and revises the existing penalty. Statistics from the NASO Legislative Scorecard indicate 13% of sports officials have been assaulted by either a fan, coach or player.

According to Northland Pines Athletic Director Brian Margelofsky, who is in support of the bill, they already try to be proactive in their defense of officials.

“We use sportsmanship messages and announcements at our contests to discourage inappropriate behavior by spectators, coaches, and athletes at Northland Pines sporting events,” he said. “This bill won’t be the end of bad behavior, but it does put a spotlight on a growing problem.

“Personally, I support Wisconsin putting this in place and hope this will only help bring awareness to the issue. I support anything that makes an individual feel supported and protected, allowing recruitment and retainment of officials.”

Similarly, Phelps Athletic Director Jason Pertile said that he and his staff work hard to keep things from getting to the point of making an official feel uncomfortable.

He also admits that by doing so they hopefully support more people getting involved in a time when there is a need for officials in a number of sports.

“There is definitely a shortage of officials in our area, but I feel most districts in the Northern Lakes Conference take precautionary steps of having a qualified events manager, and have been quick to remove those sportsmanship problems from the stands,” said Pertile.

The WIAA shared a number of statistics in support of the legislation, citing 24 states that currently have assault legislation, civil statues, and/or supportive resolutions protecting and supporting sports officials. Wisconsin is not among them.

The average age of sports officials across the country is 53 years old, and a report conducted by the National Federation of High Schools said nearly 48% of male officials have felt unsafe or feared for their safety in connection to officiating.

It also states that nearly 45% of female officials have felt unsafe or feared for their safety in connection to officiating.

The report goes on to state that 57% of sports officials believe that sportsmanship is getting worse. Youth, adult recreation, and high school levels are identified as the worst sportsmanship levels.

Parents of athletes and coaches are identified as having the most sportsmanship problems.

Because of harassment issues, the report indicates that 43% of officials quit within the first one to three years, and 13% of officials reported having been assaulted by either a fan, coach or player.

The average starting age for a sports official is now 40-45 years old. Thirty years ago, the average starting age for a sports official was 20-25 years old.

In particular the bill proposes a possible penalty of up to 40 hours of community service work, as well as any other penalties associated with the crime. In addition, it may require the violator to participate in counseling, including anger management or abusive behavior intervention, at the violator’s expense.

WIAA Executive Director Dave Anderson said he feels the problem has become nationwide, and they should be on the proactive side also.

“Responding to the national crisis as a result of the shortage of amateur and youth sports officials, we applaud and recognize the Wisconsin legislature’s bipartisan efforts to create protections for the men and women that officiate these events,” Anderson said. “We are grate­ful for their willingness to help protect and preserve these school-based activities, as well as youth and adult recreation opportunities, which contribute to the fabric of our communities and society.”

The decline in the number of high school sports officials continues at a concerning rate, and the recruiting and retaining of officials is made more difficult by the lack of sportsmanship at interscholastic and youth events.