Two Missouri bills would help protect referees

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — One of the hardest jobs in sports can become dangerous, but new laws may help provide a bit more safety.

It’s the time of year that sports are a big topic of conversation, but sports are also a focus in Jefferson City right now.

Referees never seem to be able to please everyone, especially the fans of the team getting penalized.

State Representative Jerome Barnes out of Kansas City is a former referee and says it’s time for a change when it comes to punishment for harassment of officials.

Barnes is sponsoring two bills proposed at the state level this year —  H.B. 1803 and H.B. 1570 — that would create harsher penalties for verbally threatening officials, as well as classifying refs as “special victims”. That would put them in the same category as a utility worker or MODOT employee.

KOLR10 caught up with a few officials who live in the Springfield area that have decades of experience in different sports to hear their stories.

After decades of officiating college football, and pro football (and even three super bowls), Pro Football Hall of Fame referee Larry Nemmers has been on the field for some big moments.

However, he would be the first to tell you he has made bad calls before.

“We’re not perfect. We are going to make mistakes. It’s just like any other professional or avocation. We’re good at what we do, but we’re not perfect,” Nemmers says.

At the NFL and collegiate levels, security and protection is more readily available, but high school and youth referees are often exposed more directly to volatile situations.  

“The problems usually happen at the lower level. Even a peewee football game or you go to the YMCA and see these little kids playing ball. The most rabid fans are mom and dad sitting on the sideline, and you probably have a high school kid officiating the game. I feel sorry for him, because number one he’s not trained, and he’s just there making a buck and trying to learn and help out a little bit,” says Nemmers.

Heckling can be just as bad on the basketball court as it is on the football field, and females referees get it just as bad – if not worse – than their male colleagues.

Courtney Donohue has been an official for high school and college basketball for about 15 years. She’ll also be the Supervisor of Officials at the soon to be opened Strafford Sports Center.

Part of Donohue’s job will be the development of young referees, and she says those rare instances that turn violent keep referees from wanting to keep doing what they love.

“We’re not asking for this bill to cover the hecklers. You’re going to pay your $5 and maybe you don’t agree with a travel that I had, and that’s okay. But there is a difference between personally attacking me and waiting for me after the game and situations where officials are getting jumped from the stands,” Donohue says.

When it comes to those dangerous situations, Donohue speaks from experience. She had a close call early in her career.

“Second year of officiating, fourth-grade boys basketball game, the coach was personally and verbally attacking me. I gave him an unsportsmanlike technical, he wouldn’t stop, so I ejected him out of the ball game. This was the second to last game of the night, and he waited for me through the final game in the parking lot with his little fourth-grader in the passenger seat. He followed me and tried to run me off a bridge. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever had to deal with,” says Donohue.

The legislative session began this week and will wrap up in May.  

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