In his 42 years as a referee, Michael Porpora estimates he’s been assaulted by spectators about half a dozen times, from pushing and shoving to punching.
"Referees are people too, and I've been hit, I've been chased, and I'm still going at it,” said Porpora, 55, of Wadsworth. “I still enjoy it, but I’m more careful now and more aware of my surroundings."
Porpora hopes bills in both chambers of the Ohio legislature that he and referee Andy Milligan helped get introduced will protect sports officials and compel parents and other spectators to act appropriately during games.
The two bills, Senate Bill 118 and House Bill 208, would increase the penalty for assaulting sports officials by amending the Ohio Revised Code section on assault, which is generally a first-degree misdemeanor.
The proposed legislation would make assaults of sports officials during or immediately before or after a sports event or in retaliation for the official’s actions a fifth-degree felony, in line with penalties for assaults of teachers, school administrators and bus drivers. The law would apply to all levels of sports.
A fifth-degree felony is punishable by up to 12 months in prison and a maximum fine of $2,500.
Advocating for change
Porpora got into refereeing as a child, going to games with his referee father. Milligan, 52, of Copley, started about nine years ago.
Both lifelong soccer players who met about 10 years ago in an adult men’s soccer league in Wadsworth, the two referee soccer throughout Ohio at the high school and club level. Porpora also has refereed professionally, including with Major League Soccer and the former Major Indoor Soccer League.
Earlier this year, Porpora, an environment, health and safety manager with AT&T, realized there were no laws on the book in Ohio to protect sports officials, and Milligan, a mortgage loan originator at Howard Hanna Mortgage, learned 21 states have officiating assault laws. They decided they needed to do something.
They eventually met with state Sen. Kristina Roegner (R-Hudson), who became the bill’s primary sponsor in the Senate.
It was introduced March 26 and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, with a first hearing held April 10. During the hearing, Roegner testified she was moved to introduce the legislation after meeting with Milligan and Porpora.
“Referees who are simply doing their job on the court or field should not be subjected to physical retaliation on the part of fans or players and deserve the same protections as school officials who are serving the school in other capacities,” she said during the hearing.
In the Ohio House, where it was introduced April 18, the bill’s primary sponsors are state Reps. Bill Roemer (R-Richfield) and Joe Miller (D-Amherst).
Porpora and Milligan both encouraged spectators to remember referees are regular people who make mistakes — many of whom are there just for the love of the game and come from day jobs — but they’ll learn from those errors to ensure they don’t happen again.
“But parents expect perfection, spectators expect perfection, and it's just not there … as things like that happen, they come unglued,” Porpora said.
A January letter from the Ohio High School Athletic Association encouraged parents of athletes to “cool it” and stop criticizing sports officials.
The OHSAA letter cites a recent survey by the National Association of Sports Officials that found more than 75 percent of all high school officials say “adult behavior” is the primary reason they quit, and 80 percent of all young officials quit after two years.
"Everybody's leaving within two years because of the amount of verbal abuse, the harassment that they take,” said Milligan, who said he’s never been assaulted but has been threatened by parents upset with his calls.
The OHSAA letter also highlights a “ripple effect,” with more officials over 60 years old than under 30. As older, experienced officials retire, there aren’t enough younger ones to replace them — which could lead to athletic events being postponed or canceled, especially at the freshman and junior varsity levels.
The Washington Post reports in Ohio, the OHSAA found the number of baseball umpires declined by nearly 18 percent from the 2010-11 school year to the 2017-18 school year, football officials declined by roughly 11 percent and soccer referees were down by 5.5 percent. But the number of high school athletes in Ohio increased by nearly 6 percent in the same period.
“It's not that we're getting to the point where we have a shortage of sports officials,” Milligan said. “We are to the point where we have a shortage.”
Porpora and Milligan don’t plan on retiring anytime soon — they’ll keep at it until their bodies won’t let them. Their love of the sport and officiating is enough to help them block out spectators’ behavior.
But that can be harder for younger officials who haven’t grown the thick skin required to be a referee. And that means Porpora, Milligan and others will have wasted years training someone only to have them quit.
Porpora hopes high school student athletes start refereeing games for younger players. Jobs as sports officials can teach young adults valuable life skills, he said.
“You develop these high school kids, and you get them to be the officials for the future,” he said. "There's really nobody younger coming up to fill the shoes.”
Milligan said he hopes the bill, if it passes, helps curb the amount of verbal abuse sports officials face.
“We're just two guys from northeastern Ohio. This bill isn't about us,” he said. “We really want to see a cultural change, a mind shift in how sports officials are treated."
Contact reporter Emily Mills at 330-996-3334, firstname.lastname@example.org and @EmilyMills818.