The referees, umpires and officials – particularly those involved in youth or amateur sports – place themselves at risk of both physical and verbal assaults from players and spectators week in, week out. They also take on duties that would, if breached, expose them to legal claims by players or spectators who might be injured.
Officials play an integral but often undervalued role in sport. Becoming an umpire or a referee involves commitments and sacrifices that the vast majority of participants need not even contemplate. What is also often overlooked are the various legal issues that can arise in the course of a game.
By its nature, competitive sporting activities encourage enthusiasm from spectators and players alike. Unfortunately, often that enthusiasm can transform into ugly behaviour. Both at the highest levels of professional sports, and at the Saturday morning school sports, spectators and parents have been known to taunt, harass and verbally and physically assault officials when they disagree with the official’s call.
If an official is assaulted or threatened, whether by a player, another official or a spectator:
- The other person’s conduct could be a criminal offence which police can prosecute under the Criminal Code,
- The conduct might give rise to a claim for compensation for any injury or damage caused – either under common law or, where a report is made to the police, you may be able to make a claim for compensation under the Criminal Injuries Compensation Act.
- Some forms of conduct may be in breach of Equal Opportunity laws if they involve racist, sexist or other forms of discrimination. Again this could lead to claims for damages in the Courts.
In the event of a player or spectator being injured during a game, the injured party may look to sue the official if the official has contributed to the loss by not enforcing the rules, controlling the game or ensuring the playing venue is safe.
To manage these risks, officials must:
- Bear in mind that their primary responsibility and duty is to enforce the rules of the game and prevent illegal actions in the course of play;
- Do all that they reasonably can to protect participants, especially from the risk of injury. This will involve properly inspecting the playing grounds to identify potential hazards, stopping play in inclement weather, preventing spectators from interfering with players or the game, and ensuring players are wearing prescribed protective equipment;
- Control and supervise the game;
- Where appropriate, warn players and spectators of risks that may not be avoidable and are not obvious;
- Know and abide by the relevant sport's Code of Ethics or similar guide for officials; Knowing the contents of the Code is a great way to be armed to fulfil the duties of an official.
- Know and follow the relevant sport's risk management plans, policies and procedures;
- Undertake any training available to you. Most sports now have access to excellent training and education programs for officials.
Follow these principles and hopefully all officials will have to worry about on gameday is some parochial supporters offering them decision-making 'advice'.