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Our view: Bill in the Minnesota Legislature might help end unruly fan behavior at games. It's about time.

Most anyone who attends a game at any level eventually will have some sort of emotional response to an official’s call. It’s the nature of sports. But the grown-ups in attendance always must remember to take a breath, holster those emotions and rise above the urge to react with insults, intimidation or violence.

Herald pull quote, April 2
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Sports officials are increasingly being targeted by unruly fans. Perhaps a proposal floated last month in the Minnesota Legislature will help rein in some of the abhorrent behavior that seems to be percolating ever more at sports events across the region.

Referees are getting fed up, and we don’t blame them. According to a report last year in businessinsider.com, referees nationwide are quitting at alarming rates.

“With (the COVID-19 pandemic) on top of it all, it’s an epidemic of referee shortages,” Brian Barlow, creator of the Facebook page Offside, said in the report.

Also in the report, according to a New York Times survey: 70% of referees quit within three years of entering the field and 57% say sportsmanship is getting worse, with parents, coaches and fans causing the most trouble.

Referees – who are spending time away from their families, and most of whom simply want to help promote youth sports – endure this kind of abuse for a few bucks.

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Most anyone who attends a game at any level eventually will have some sort of emotional response to an official’s call. It’s the nature of sports. But the grown-ups in attendance always must remember to take a breath, holster those emotions and rise above the urge to react with insults, intimidation or violence.

Some fans simply cannot resist, and that’s why we appreciate efforts in the Minnesota Legislature to try to calm some of this unruly behavior. A bill being pushed by state Rep. John Huot, D-Rosemount, would allow the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission to fine unruly fans who verbally or physically assault referees at all events, even including youth sports like Little League baseball and softball. The bill specifically is aimed at unruly fans – not players, students or coaches – and could see fines up to $1,000.

Huot is a game official and, during a legislative committee meeting on March 22, said it’s “a real sad day to have to bring a bill like this before you, but unfortunately, the time is now.”

He said that in recent years, referees are seeing the “angst” at sporting events get worse.

“I am OK with fans saying ‘bad call, ref’ … but I’m not OK when they use profanity or vulgar terms or racial epithets. I don’t think that’s acceptable,” he said.

Huot referenced a recent incident in Detroit Lakes – a fan at a game there threw popcorn at a referee, went on the court and yanked off the referee’s whistle – and said “we have to stop this behavior.”

We do foresee troubles with uniform enforcement and burden of proof within the Minnesota bill. Also, existing laws already protect referees from violent behavior. Yet we believe this discussion is good, since something must be done to further protect referees from rising abuse.

Although they are paid, high school referees are essentially volunteers whose presence ensures the ability to conduct interscholastic events. If more referees quit, schools will be forced to scramble to hold events.

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Of course high school and youth officials make mistakes, because they – like the athletes they oversee – are not professionals. But who on Earth wants to subject themselves to this kind of abuse?

The Minnesota bill is a good start, and if nothing else, it’s a good way to spark more conversations about the disturbing trends we see at so many sporting events.

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