Washington Poised to Join Numerous States Imposing Criminal Penalties for Assaulting Sports Officials

Mar 22, 2024

By Alan Goldberger

(Editor’s Note: Shortly after this article was written, the proposed Washington state law failed to receive a hearing before the state Senate.)

Several years ago, U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. denied a motion to disqualify the Court on the ground of his Honor’s alleged bias. While Judge Boasberg aptly described plaintiffs’ articulated bases for their motion as lying “… somewhere between feeble and head scratching,” another portion of his Opinion should resonate with everyone involved in competitive sports in any capacity — from youth to professional sports and every level in between:

Since the dawn of organized sports, fans of losing teams have found a ready scapegoat for their heroes’ shortcomings: the referee. Taking this lesson to heart, Plaintiffs … not only assail the Court for adverse rulings, but they also ratchet their grievances up a substantial and ill-considered notch: they move to disqualify the Court on the ground of bias.[1]

When players, coaches, parents, and other denizens of the bleachers “ratchet their grievances up a substantial and ill-considered notch” by assaulting the referee, the foundations of competitive sport are shaken and diminished. Assaults on game officials have resulted in serious, catastrophic, and even fatal injuries to game officials and driven men and women of courage and character to leave officiating in droves. To denigrate the work of game officials whose only objective is to make the game safe, fair, and fun for the athletes by enforcing the rules should be unthinkable, yet the practice persists.

Although assaults on referees and umpires have a long and horrifying history, the exponential expansion of virulent and violent behavior that seems to dominate the evening news in many places finds game officials the victims with increasing frequency.  This sad state of athletic affairs accounts in large measure for the nationwide shortage of officials that has caused innumerable cancelations in scheduled competition on the interscholastic and recreational levels of competition.

And, that we are living in a time when mean-spiritedness and senseless violence take no holiday is little comfort for those officials who go through intensive and continuous training and education to venture out on the playing field or court to keep order and make competitive sport at all levels possible.

As any official will tell you: “Without us, it’s just a pick-up game.”  Legally speaking, the aphorism fits: Indeed, all competitive athletic programs rely on game officials of some stripe — so to speak — or another to ensure that rules are followed, the game is safe, and that each team has a chance to win. Thus, missteps aside, the object of the game is fulfilled.

And, while the veracity of Judge Boasberg’s pithy observation is proven every day around the world, legislative action in the United States to protect “the referee” from violent attacks likely only date back to, say, 1978 or so.

It appears that the state of Oklahoma was first to the party, with the enactment of Oklahoma Statutes Annotated650.1, entitled “Athletic contests–Assault and battery upon referee, umpire, etc.” Below is the current version, as amended in 1984:

§ 650.1. Athletic contests–Assault and battery upon referee, umpire, etc.

Every person who, without justifiable or excusable cause and with intent to do bodily harm, commits any assault, battery, assault and battery upon the person of a referee, umpire, timekeeper, coach, official, or any person having authority in connection with any amateur or professional athletic contest is guilty of a misdemeanor and is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one (1) year or by a fine not exceeding One Thousand Dollars ($1,000.00), or by both such fine and imprisonment. —Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 21, § 650.1 (West)

As it turns out, it took just over two years after the original statute was enacted before it withstood a Constitutional challenge, heard before the Court of Criminal Appeals of Oklahoma.

In Carroll v. State,[2] after the game in question the “plate” umpire was at his car, trunk open, changing his uniform for the next game, when he was accosted by a group of players on the losing team, who began to berate the umpire. An assistant coach joined the group, contributing to the effort by striking the umpire in the jaw.

On appeal, the “Loser and Still Convicted” perpetrator maintained that the statute was unconstitutionally vague and indefinite.” The Court of Criminal Appeals held that the proscribed conduct was clear — specifically delineating which persons are covered and apprising the public of the particular conduct prohibited.[3]

Today, not only does the Oklahoma statute still stand proud; the law was fortified a few years after enactment. A 1984 amendment focused on the fact that it was the game officials who needed enhanced protection.

Therefore, the 1984 amendment from consideration assaults against “players,” “participants,” and “sports reporters.” In addition, the legislature increased the sentencing parameters from imprisonment for a maximum of 6 months to 1 year, and/or a maximum fine of $1,000.

Over the span of the forty-four baseball seasons that followed, nearly two dozen states joined Oklahoma in enacting legislation imposing legal consequences for assaulting a game official.

These statutes and regulations come in several flavors — some providing the usual penal sanctions: fines and imprisonment. Other consequences for those convicted may include:

  • Enhanced sentencing upgrades
  • Mandatory community service obligations for offenders
  • Mandatory counseling or “anger management” sessions
  • Statutory cause of action for assaults on officials
  • Injunctive Relief: offenders banned from participation and attendance at games or activities for a stated period: or until established conditions are met.
  • Court imposed bans on attending games sponsored by an organization, or in a certain locality or at defined levels of competition.
  • State or local administrative regulations authorizing organizations, schools, or municipalities to impose sanctions and ban offenders from the games.
  • Court imprimatur of state interscholastic athletic association policies imposing severe sanctions on persons who assault officials.[4]

In some states, punitive action is not limited to fines and imprisonment: courts, or governing bodies or their affiliates, sometimes are empowered to bar convicted persons from attending certain sports events or venues for a period of time. In some states, admission to future events as a spectator (or participant) is subject to a requirement to perform community service or completion of anger management or another course as a prerequisite.


The latest legislative attempt is found in the state of Washington, where legislators hope to have the state join other states that have enacted legislation criminalizing assaults against sports officials.

Washington House Bill No. 2079 is ambitiously entitled:

Improving school safety by extending and increasing penalties for interference by, or intimidation by threat of, force or violence at schools and athletic activities.[5]

Its sponsors relate that the bill makes interfering by force or violence with an interscholastic athletic activity punishable as a Class C felony — punishable by imprisonment for up to 5 years and a fine of p to $10,000. In addition, offenders are prohibited from entering the school involved and from attending games or competitions for up to 12 months. Similarly, public school students who commit a violent act at the site of a game or competition may be excluded from participating in or attending that activity for up to 12 months. “Emergency removal of students” is authorized under the bill; and a student’s school placement may be withdrawn when the school district has sufficient cause to believe that the student’s presence poses both an immediate and continuing danger to other students or school personnel or an immediate and continuing threat of material and substantial disruption of the educational process.”[i]

The bill, passed by a vote of 97-0 on February 14, 2024, was the result of a litany of legislative findings. Recognizing that “… extracurricular athletics would not be possible without the commitment of officials, judges [and] referees, the legislative findings devoid of platitudinous fluff, continue:

[T]he values engendered in interscholastic activities are being undermined by participants and spectators who do not respect the commitment of these officials. Increasingly, these people are expressing their dissatisfaction through inappropriate verbal abuse and behavior directed at the officials. The legislature recognizes that officials, such as judges and referees, and volunteers acting as officials, for extracurricular athletic activities of elementary and secondary school students are particularly vulnerable to inappropriate conduct because their attention is focused on the athletic activities. Thus, the legislature intends to provide additional support and protection for officials conducting interscholastic events.[6]

There are a number of states whose combination of administrative regulations, municipal ordinances and governing body authorizations provide for an assortment of punitive measures outside of the civil and criminal courts. Also, state high school athletic associations that operate in every state are largely empowered – either legislatively or contractually — to impose severe sanctions for assaults within the structure of the organization.[7]


The specific penalties for assaulting a sports official vary from state to state. Deterrent measures including fines, imprisonment, and/or bans from attending or participating in sports are, of course, only as effective as the prosecution and enforcement mechanisms in the relevant jurisdiction. Whether legislative measures and support from the courts and law enforcement will be sufficient to, long term, stem the tide of assaults on game officials remains to be seen.

[1] Montgomery v. Internal Revenue Serv., CV 17-918 (JEB), 2020 WL 2994334, at *1 (D.D.C. June 4, 2020), aff’d, 40 F.4th 702 (D.C. Cir. 2022)

[2] 620 P.2d 416, 418 (Okla. Crim. App. 1980)

[3] Id.

[4] State High school athletic association sanctions in this regard have been consistently upheld by courts.

https://lawfilesext.leg.wa.gov/biennium/2023-024.pdf?q=20240229061426 (Washington State House of Representatives Office of Program Research.

[5] 2023 Washington House Bill No. 2079, State of Washington – 68th Legislature – 2024 Regular Session

[6] Id.

[7] https://lawfilesext.leg.wa.gov/biennium/2023-024.pdf?q=20240229061426 (Washington State House of Representatives Office of Program Research.


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