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Referee Charles Powell tosses the coin for the start of the game between West Feliciana and East Feliciana on Friday night.

Rep. Cameron Henry proposed House Bill 184 to address a constituent’s concerns about youth sports in Metairie. But a memory from Henry’s childhood offers telling insight about high school athletics.

“My dad was a high school football official. He took the four of us to games with him from time to time,” Henry said. “He would tell us to meet him at the car after the game. After some games, he would run to the car because he figured somebody who was upset about the game might follow him.”

The law that grew from HB 184 goes into effect Aug. 1 and makes it a crime to harass contest officials involved with recreation or secondary school-based sports. No one, including lawmakers and the LHSAA, can say what impact it may have.

But its passage puts a national sportsmanship issue — the behavior of parents and spectators — into the Louisiana spotlight.

“This is a diffuser,” said Sen. Dan Claitor, of Baton Rouge. “The idea is to keep situations from escalating to violence. Unfortunately, less than two weeks after it passed, there was an incident not far from my office that illustrates why we need it in place.”

Claitor amended Henry’s bill to include secondary schools before it was approved by and signed into law. The incident he referenced was the assault of a recreation basketball official at the BREC Community Park on Perkins Road which led to two arrests.

One person arrested was a spectator. Louisiana already has a law that makes it a felony to attack a contest official who is actively engaged in officiating.

However, concerns go beyond the playing fields and courts. In addition to verbal abuse during games, concerns about officials’ safety as they return to their cars after games is growing.

Lee Sanders, the LHSAA’s assistant executive director in charge of officials, cites one incident in a school parking lot last spring that has led to prosecution. Sanders said abuse from fans is a key reason why high school associations and recreation groups across the nation have trouble recruiting and retaining officials.

“Attracting younger officials is something we have to do over the next few years,” Sanders said. “The average age of our high school officials is somewhere north of 50. At some point, those folks will no longer officiate.”

LHSAA Executive Director Eddie Bonine and National Federation of High Schools Executive Director Karissa Niehoff co-authored a letter in February telling parents to “cool it” when it comes to criticizing game officials and coaches.

As Henry noted, “I have young children and I’ve seen it as a parent at Pontiff (Playground). Somebody in the stands gets upset and goes off. What happens when it gets to the point where no one wants to officiate? Or coach? What happens to the games?”

Knowing the law

Understanding what the harassment law includes is crucial. The word “official” typically refers to a referee or umpire. This law expands the definition to include coaches, school administrators, instructors, staff personnel and recreation personnel.

The boundaries for enforcement go beyond the playing fields and courts. Harassing a “contest official” in the immediate vicinity of school or recreation event, including parking lots also is forbidden.

Those charged can be fined as much as $500 and sentenced to up to 90 days in jail. They must perform 40 hours of community service and attend a court-approved anger management program. An individual who is ejected and ordered to leave the facility but does not can be fined up to $500 and sentenced to as much as six months in jail.

Social turns antisocial

Legislators such as Claitor and Henry believe social media has heightened instances of abuse. They are not alone. Videos of parents fighting each other, officials or coaches over youth sports and at interscholastic games can be accessed easily because cell-phone cameras are everywhere.

Pundits criticize bad behavior of college and professional athletes, calling it a “trickle-down” effect when those behaviors are copied on the interscholastic and youth levels.

Lutcher football coach and athletic director Dwain Jenkins, the president of the Louisiana High School Coaches Association, said social media helps foster the reverse effect with negative behaviors from youth sports “age up” to high school sports.

“With social media, everybody has a voice. They can criticize and remain anonymous,” Jenkins said. “They look at interscholastic sports like they are college or pro sports. And they’re not. They can use Twitter or Instagram to criticize a 15-year-old kid, an official or a coach. I am for any measure that puts interscholastic athletics in the proper light.

“These players are not pros. Athletics is part of their education and growth. The officials we have don’t get paid what the college and pro officials make,” Jenkins said. “They do it because they love sports, and the newer officials, like the players, have to grow and learn.

“High school sports have to be about more than winning. Degrading a kid, a coach or an official because your team didn’t win isn’t the right way to go.”

An LHSAA plan

Sanders begins his second year coordinating officials. In Year 1, Sanders, the LHSAA and the Louisiana High School Officials Association tackled the declining numbers in the officials’ ranks.

In Year 2, the LHSAA is requiring schools to have pregame meetings before all events that include officials/referees, coaches, host-site administrators, security personnel and on-site medical personnel.

Procedures for handling injuries or medical emergencies on the court or in the stands will be addressed. Plans of action for altercations on the court, field or in the stands, along with verbal abuse will be discussed. An exit route and postgame security escort for officials also will be formulated. Meanwhile, the LHSAA is also taking recruitment of officials to the schools.

“We’re going into schools to seek out and target athletes who are graduating or are now in college,” Sanders said. “Officiating can be a great way for college students to earn some extra money.

“Retaining the officials we recruit is a challenge. By Year 4, we’re losing 80 percent of the new officials we get and that number should bother all of us. The conduct of fans, coaches and players has a role in that. Why put up with the abuse?”

Sanders said the LHSAA will distribute public service announcements to be made at games, along with signs reminding spectators of conduct to avoid. Look for PSAs to pop up in other locations, including digital billboards and during movie previews.

Officially speaking

Mike Sommer heard plenty in his first two years as assignment secretary for the Baton Rouge Area Basketball Officials Association. Now a fixture in the stands as he observes officials, Sommer’s view is different than the one he saw in more than 35 years as a high school official.

“I never really had problems with fans the years I worked on the court,” Sommer said. “The first thing I told our officials when I took the job was that we had to get better. Each year we are adding areas to focus on. Their focus has to be on the game.

“One thing we hear more and more — and it comes from fans and coaches — is that ‘You guys cheated us.’ Nothing is further from the truth. Officials are not perfect. I have no problem with a fan who disagrees with a call. That is part of the game. Personal attacks and threats go beyond that.

"Consider this point … officials in the SEC are expected to get 85 to 90 percent of the calls right. They are more experienced and make thousands of dollars a night. Our officials don’t make close to that and most don’t have that level of experience.”

Baton Rouge Area Football Officials Association assignment secretary Marlon Harrison also sees the harassment law as a positive step.

“Those of us officiating now can’t do it forever. We have to be able to train younger officials through middle school games, freshmen and (junior varsity) games,” Harrison said. “We ask the coaches and schools to talk to their parents about this and we understand that’s hard for them to do.

"But as soon as the game starts, people start in on the officials. These men and women do it because they love the game and want to be involved. After a while, they question whether it is worth it.”

Beyond Louisiana

The LHSAA’s approach is one piece in an evolving nationwide puzzle. During the National Federation of High Schools annual meeting last month in Indianapolis, retention of officials and ways to curb abuse were hot-button topics. Steps taken by Oregon and Tennessee are noteworthy.

Oregon enters the 2019-20 school year with a new state law that holds schools accountable in a major way. Schools that do not address undesirable fan conduct can have their membership in the voluntary Oregon High School Activities Association stripped.

The tipping point was detailed by multiple news organizations. Racially charged language and gestures directed toward black players from Parkrose High by fans from St. Helens, a school located 30 minutes from Portland, prompted the law.

An incident in which a St. Helens reportedly told a white Parkrose player, “You should be their master, not their teammate,” was recounted to the Legislature.

The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association has a seven-page sportsmanship directive to its schools. It outlines the responsibilities of host and visiting teams, coaches and administrators. Those responsibilities are to be detailed during pregame meetings similar to the one planned in Louisiana.

But there is more. One page of the memo mentions unsportsmanlike conduct for players and coaches, along with penalties for violations. Another page provides guidelines for spectators and fans, along with examples of poor behavior, such as profanity, obscene gestures, name-calling or chants directed at a player, coach or official.

New law and order

Sanders and the LHSAA hope pregame meetings and a proactive approach by schools that includes signage announcements before and during games prevent instances abuse, helps prevent the chance of escalation to violence.

“The law is in place,” Henry said. “My hope is that we don’t have to use it.”

Email Robin Fambrough at rfambrough@theadvocate.com