New legislation introduced this session could provide legal protection for sports officials in Kansas from unruly spectators.

House Bill 2139 would create the crime of abuse of a sports official, punishable as a misdemeanor in Kansas. That would include actions at sporting events such as shoving, kicking, spitting or otherwise making physical contact with an official or threatening to engage in such conduct. The Kansas House Education Committee heard testimony Thursday from sports officials in support of the bill.

John Dehan is a full-time assigner of sports officials to youth sporting events from the Kansas City area and says he’s seen instances of such abuse firsthand.

“I’ve had an official punched. The police officers showed up. The guy accused that official of poking him in the chest. He would’ve been arrested if it was you that he poked in the chest. Both of my sons tried to umpire out at Johnson County 3&2. They lasted a half a summer, choosing to go to the concession stands and flip burgers in the heat, because they didn’t like being yelled at,” he said.

Dehan says his son at age 13 was yelled at by a parent for a missed foul call down the line at a youth baseball game.

Some believe instances like this are deterring others from getting into the profession. Kansas State High School Activities Association Executive Director Bill Faflick says Kansas is at an all-time low for registered officials.

“We often say without officials, it’s just recess. I love recess, but the educational benefit of recess is not the same as the educational benefit of interscholastic activities where there’s a standard that is accomplished for kids to be able to represent their school. We need men and women to stand in the gap to officiate for the students in our schools and in our communities,” he said.

Jeffrey Bachman has officiated basketball at all levels for 30 years, softball for 25 years and football for five years. He calls the current shortage of sports officials a crisis for youth sports in Kansas.

“Compared to 10 years ago, there are 1,365 fewer registered officials which reflects a decline of 22.7%. There aren’t a lot of them registering to join and those that are registered to join are looking at getting out because of the sportsmanship abuse from the fans and spectators,” he said.

Members of the committee asked if instances are worsening for officials over time. Dehan noted how his advice to officials has changed since he opened his business in the 1990s.

“When I first started assigning officials, I would tell them to always walk to their car with your key in hand, that way you can get in and protect yourself. Now I tell them to walk to their car with your key in your hand and your video camera going. That way if they you can show the video that the person is trying to do something stupid to you,” he said.

Dehan pointed to rhetoric by elected officials at the national level for contributing to fan behavior at sporting events, saying it is his opinion that actions from people like the president calling someone names can justify someone to think it’s ok to call out a referee or umpire.

The Kansas National Education Association testified neutral. No opposing testimony was provided at Thursday’s hearing. The bill’s fiscal note is shared below.