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'Kill the Ump' No Longer an Idle Threat

Sports: Attacked by increasingly hostile fans, many umpires and referees are calling it quits. Some blame incivility on poor example set by pros.


WASHINGTON — Kill the ump? Some people take it almost literally. Umpires and referees say they are getting punched and kicked and are seeing even their cars attacked.

And they are tired of it. Many umps and refs are quitting--taking themselves out of the game rather than putting up with abuse from fans, coaches and athletes.

"It's becoming a disturbing trend that we are seeing more and more officials being assaulted," said Bob Still, spokesman for the National Assn. of Sports Officials and a part-time ref. The group counts nearly 19,000 refs and umps as members.

There is no national tally of assaults on sports officials, Still said. A lot of incidents on the local level never get reported to national governing bodies because there is no requirement for reporting. And there is no national center to collect every group's assault data.

But the trend is clear, Still said. In the past, only an occasional report of an assault would make its way to his group's headquarters in Racine, Wis. "Now we are getting them on a weekly basis," he said.

An analysis by the organization cites cases dating as far back as 1995. " 'Kill the ump' has become more than just a taunt by some disgruntled fans," it said. "In fact, certain players, coaches and fans have engaged in actions in which it seemed as if they were indeed trying to 'kill the ump.' "

Some of the incidents wind up in the news.

Last July, a Manassas, Va., man head-butted a referee during an an adult amateur soccer match. The ref said the player struck him from behind after he had ejected the man for being verbally abusive. In 1996, a Washington state wrestling official was knocked out by a high school wrestler who head-butted him.

In other incidents, "punches are being thrown, guns are drawn, people are firing shots over [referees'] heads," Stills said. Referees have been chased off the field, tailgated for miles in their cars and found their car windows bashed in with baseball bats, he said.

This insurrection of incivility seems to be spreading by example, the report said. Amateurs see pros abuse refs and get away with light punishment, if anything, it said.

The study cited the Roberto Alomar case in September 1996. The Baltimore Orioles player spit in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck and later had to be restrained by manager Davey Johnson. Alomar received a five-game suspension to take effect, after the playoffs, in the following season.

In amateur play, when perpetrators are brought up on criminal charges, the punishments also are often light, the study said.

Sports officials increasingly are unwilling to put up with the risks, Still said, adding: "People are saying, 'I've had enough. It's not worth it." Officials commonly work free in recreational and youth league play; they may get $35 to $50 a game in high school games.

Umps don't expect to be loved, Still said. "It's perfectly OK to yell at the ump; that's part of the game," he said. But people should realize that officials are only human and do make bad calls, Still said. How to live with the occasional bad call is a life skill that sports is supposed to teach, he said.

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