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Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)
They might think it, but it's not every day that a member of the Virginia General Assembly opens a policy debate by saying "You suck" to a colleague.
That's exactly what Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, did Monday when a House of Delegates subcommittee took up a bill to impose tougher criminal penalties for abusing sports referees.
Gilbert made the comment as a joke when Del. Chris Collins, R-Frederick, outed himself as a football referee and said he once had to be escorted off the field by sheriff's deputies, even though it wasn't him that "threw the bad flag."
But Gilbert, the chairman of the House Criminal Law subcommittee that heard the bill, later used the comment to make a serious point about why he had reservations about elevating referees as a protected class.
"I feel like what I just did in your scenario could put me in jail," Gilbert said. "And I'm not sure we intend the curse and abuse statute, no matter who we're cursing, to be a jailable offense."
The subcommittee voted 8-0 to kill the bill, but its sponsor, Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, said the state is facing a potentially dangerous lack of sportsmanship that needs to be addressed one way or the other.
Hope said that as a coach for his daughter's soccer team, he's seen "a lot of abusive behavior."
"For some reason people seem to think that when you go onto a field, the things you can say or do are different than when you're just walking down the street," Hope said. "I don't know what it is."
Jesse Rosenthal, a soccer official from Northern Virginia who assigns referees to games, told the panel he was aware of refs who had faced violent threats, had full water bottles thrown at their heads and endured hecklers "suggesting that certain members of their family engage in prostitution." Unlike other workers who can call the police if someone turns threatening, Rosenthal said, refs are trained to tune it out.
Hope's bill, House Bill 1315, would have created a special carveout for sports officials in a state law that makes it a crime to use "violent abusive language" toward another person. The general crime is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500. When committed against a referee, under Hope's proposal, the offense would be bumped to a higher class punishable by fines of up to $2,500 and up to a year in jail.
Collins agreed that referee abuse is a real problem, but he said there are other ways to address it, like charging people with assault or pushing coaches and athletic directors to do more to control their crowds.
"It is an issue. And it's a problem within all the athletic associations," Collins said. "Particularly Little League Baseball. That is by far the worst I have ever seen parents act."
The subcommittee's legal counsel suggested the bill, as written, wouldn't achieve its desired effect because case law on verbal threats requires a face-to-face encounter and may not apply to someone yelling at a referee from across a field.
Hope said his bill was aimed at truly threatening speech, not run-of-the mill insults. Even if there are other ways to crack down on the behavior, Hope said, a stronger law would send spectators a message to shape up.
"I think if we pass this legislation, every parent will be informed - and player, too, by the way - that if they cross this bright line that there's going to be consequences for it," Hope said.
Gilbert also said he was worried about creating special protections for refs because others who face abuse on the job, like teachers, first responders and law enforcement, might want the same treatment.
"Politicians get cursed all the time," Gilbert said. "But we just accept it as part of the deal."
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