It was a fight to the death with all the blood, guts, and barbaric cruelty found in Game of Thrones. But it was horrifyingly real. Earlier this summer, during an amateur soccer match in the Brazilian state of Maranhao, a referee and player argued over a call. The ref pulled out a knife and fatally stabbed the player. Then, other players and spectators rushed onto the field, killed the referee, and sliced off his legs, arms, and head with a sickle. The murderous rampage ended with the man’s head on a stake in the middle of the soccer pitch.
While the stomach-turning violence marked a new nadir for the sports world, it was one of many recent assaults on officials. On June 30 in Lynn, police say, a player repeatedly attacked a referee who had issued a red penalty card during a US Latin Soccer League contest. The ref spent two days in the hospital, recovering from a broken facial bone, deep forehead laceration, and black eye. The player was charged with assault and battery, and his two brothers were also charged for their alleged roles in the incident.
Questioning calls or confronting sports officials is nothing new. Tennis player John McEnroe reached hysterical heights with his rants. Yankees manager Billy Martin kicked dirt on umpires. But recent attacks on officials don’t remotely fall into the same ballpark. “There was nothing like this in the old days,” says Barry Mano, the founder and president of the National Association of Sports Officials. “It’s escalating, but more importantly, the nature of this has changed.”
Fights between players and officials, coaches and officials, and fans and officials are happening with alarming frequency and increasing brutality, predominantly at amateur games of every kind. At least once a week, Mano’s group receives reports of sports officials being physically abused. Those calls come only from the association’s 20,000 members; Mano believes many incidents go unreported.
In June, a Newark little league coach pleaded guilty to assaulting an umpire. The official suffered a fractured skull and hearing loss in his left ear. In Sarasota, Florida, nearly two years ago, football players and coaches attacked a referee, leaving him with a shoulder fracture and back and neck injuries. Authorities charged three adults and one juvenile with battery. In a Salt Lake City suburb, after being penalized with a yellow card, a soccer player punched a recreation-league ref in the head. The man slipped into a coma and died in early May.
The cases shock, disturb, and reflect a less civil, more aggressive society. The wired world encourages impatience and impulsiveness. Sometimes we hit send and referees without thinking. “Sports is simply life with the volume turned up,” says Mano, who officiated basketball for 23 years. And the adrenaline and passion that fuel athletic competition can create potentially unsafe circumstances.
Youth and recreational leagues present a particularly dangerous combination of the least skilled players, the least skilled coaches, the least skilled referees, and the most passionate fans in parents and other relatives. Heavily invested players, coaches, and fans always outnumber officials, and as the inevitable bearers of bad news, refs and umps present easy targets. In youth and recreational leagues, officials often find themselves with little, if any, security. To protect themselves, they must police the action on the field and the atmosphere around it. Maybe that was why the slain Brazilian referee brought a knife with him.
But all is not lost. More violent attacks against sports officials have brought more attention to the issue and more resolve to keep games safe for all involved, especially in the United States after the death of the Utah referee. One solution involves increased security at games. Making law enforcement more visible might discourage would-be attackers. Tougher penalties might work as a deterrent, too. Currently, there are 21 states with legislation that specifically addresses assaults against sports officials, 19 with criminal laws and two with civil statutes. Massachusetts is not one of those states, according to Mano’s group. In Utah, also where no specific law covers violence committed against refs, the 17-year-old player who killed the referee with a punch pleaded guilty to homicide by assault on August 5. A parole board will decide whether the teenager serves the maximum sentence and stays in juvenile prison until he turns 21.
Better behavior by professional athletes, coaches, and parents may be the simplest way to protect officials, particularly in youth sports. After all, young athletes imitate what they see on television and take cues from adults on the sidelines. The police report from Utah indicates that the attacker fled the crime scene with his father. Later, the teen admitted his guilt. In court proceedings, he said, “I was frustrated at the ref and caused his death,” and he sent a message that players, coaches, and fans must be accountable for their actions. Someday cooler heads may draw more attention than one head on a stake.
Shira Springer is a Globe sports reporter. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.