COLUMBUS, Ohio — “It’s just gotten way out of hand,” Kristi Howard said.
Being 870 miles from Columbus, Ohio, Howard, connected through Zoom, sits in her office in Mississippi. She wants you to know “this is why.”
“[I] love the game, love the kids, love the environment, love being out there,” she said.
It’s why she started being an umpire 10 years ago. In the last four or five years, though, she says threats of violence and assault have escalated.
“The whole parent group was extremely rowdy from the get-go,” she said.
This past Saturday while being an umpire for a 12-year-old softball game, she says a group of parents became loud and started cursing. Howard had already thrown one parent out by the time the fourth inning came when a player slid underneath a tag.
Howard called the runner safe. That’s when another parent in the stands called Howard out.
“She started screaming across the field ‘Hey, I’m gonna F you up, [expletive],” she said.
Howard says the woman was ejected from the game.
“She turned around, she was like ‘When you step off this field, I’m gonna slap the F out of you [expletive]’,” Howard said.
When the game was over, Howard says the woman was waiting on her.
“And then, bam, she was there and she says ‘What do you got to say now, [expletive]’, and punched me,” she said.
On Sunday, Howard posted to Facebook a picture of her black eye and a warning saying why parents see a decrease in officials at games; this is why. The post has been shared more than 23,000 times.
The problems she is facing in Mississippi are the same problems school districts in Ohio are facing.
“It’s almost turned into an epidemic that we’re scrambling to try to get people to want to do this,” Jay Wolfe said.
Wolfe is the athletic director at Olentangy High School. Last week he posted to Twitter saying games are being played with no umpires.
Beau Rugg is the director of officiating and sports management with the Ohio High School Athletic Association and says more is being done to get more officials from upping the pay to schools putting in officiating curriculum to, hopefully in the next few months, putting training classes online.
“We know at some point we’ll gain some momentum on this,” he said. “The bad news, obviously, is that doesn’t help us today.”
Rugg says 10 years ago, there were a documented 16,629 officials in the state of Ohio. Today, that number is 13,369. He says there are a number of factors for the drop through the years from the economy to COVID-19, but most of all he says the blame falls on fans.
“The bottom line is, the biggest, far and away reason people leave officiating or don’t want to go into officiating is because of fan behavior,” Rugg said.
Rugg says that ranges from yelling, cursing and assaults.
“You don’t agree with calls that’s fine,” he said. “But the ugliness that’s out there is unbelievable.”
Howard says she’s using this moment to call for more legislation to help protect officials, something that is not currently law in Mississippi.
Last June, the Ohio House voted to approve a bill that would increase penalties for assaulted sports officials. House Bill 44 would require a mandatory fine of $1,500 and 40 hours of community service for a misdemeanor offense.
The bill has not yet been approved by the state Senate.