N.J. may stiffen penalties for assaulting youth sports officials after explosion of bad behavior

January 20, 2023


By: Brent Johnson | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

In the wake of a string of sometimes violent arguments and altercations at youth sporting events across New Jersey in recent years, lawmakers have begun advancing a proposed state law that would increase penalties for those convicted in those incidents.

The bipartisan bill, which a state Assembly committee approved Thursday, would increase penalties on those who assault or harass an official, player, or participants at school or other youth sports events in New Jersey. It also would upgrade certain types of assault against sports officials in the state to aggravated assault.

In one of the most notable incidents, a coach punched a 72-year-old umpire during a youth baseball game in Branchburg last June after arguing a call and being ejected from the game. The umpire suffered a broken jaw that required extensive dental surgery.

NJ Advance Media reported in March of last year that there has been an explosion of bad behavior on sports fields across the state, including verbal and physical assaults of coaches and officials.

That includes another incident last year in which adult fan stormed the floor and shoved a coach during a high school basketball game in Jersey City.

“We know the psychological long-term effects that parents fighting in a home has on children,” Assemblywoman Vicki Flynn, R-Monmouth, a main sponsor, said during a hearing on the legislation Thursday. “I don’t know why it’s any different when it’s at a soccer field, a basketball court, or a hockey rink.”

“The long-term damage these toxic and sometimes violent incidents cause to children is what this legislation is trying to avoid,” she added. “Parents, spectators, staff, coaches and anyone else behaving badly during sporting events involving children must be stopped and held accountable.”

Under the proposal, someone who commits a simple assault against a sports official, coach, player, or participant at a school of community sponsored youth event in New Jersey would now face up to 18 months in prison, a fine of up to $10,000, or both.

Currently, anyone who commits simple assault in the state faces up to six months in prison, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.

The bill also would upgrade those who commit aggravated assault against a sports official to a third-degree crime if the official suffers bodily injury. They would face a prison sentence of three to five years, a fine of up to $15,000, or both.

If the assault is against someone under the age of 18, it would be a third-degree crime punishable by up to five to 10 years in prison, a fine of up to $15,000, or both.

The measure was previously addressed by two different bills (A4471 and A444) but has been combined into one.

Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, D-Hudson, the committee’s chairman and a co-sponsor of the legislation, said his kids play sports not to become pros but to “learn values and morals and develop character with their peer class.”

“When you are assaulting someone at a youth sports event, we’re going to be putting them in category as public officials and law enforcement official and school personal, where it’s already upgraded to aggravated assault,” Mukherji said. “It’s gonna be indictable now.”

The Assembly Judiciary committee voted 5-0 to approve the bill Thursday at the Statehouse in Trenton. It must be passed by the full state Senate and Assembly before the governor can decide whether to sign it into law.

Randy Nathan, a coach and West Orange resident, told the committee he’s been pushing for such a law for 10 years. He said the problem has been around for decades, but there has been an increase since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Safeguards must be put in place to protect officials from parents who damage the integrity of the sport with a confrontational behavior,” Nathan said.

Assemblyman Robert Auth, R-Bergen, a committee member, said he was once an umpire who endured “some berating from some parents.”

“It was really terrible,” Auth said during the hearing. “It has been escalating over the years.”

NJ Advance Media staff writer Matthew Stanmyre contributed to this report.