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Michigan referee’s death prompts calls for tougher laws

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Attacks on Michigan referees so alarmed Jim Dworman, an accomplished lawyer who also officiates high school basketball and football games, that he contacted his lawmaker two years ago about toughening penalties for such actions.

“People just weren’t that interested,” he said.

Everything changed with a single punch in a men’s recreational soccer game near Detroit last summer. Referee John Bieniewicz, 44, was killed by the blow from player Bassel Saad. The 37-year-old pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and will be sentenced Friday to up to 15 years in prison.

The incident is prompting legislators to consider making Michigan the 20th state with a criminal law that targets assaults on sports officials, with bills pending in the Senate to lengthen jail or prison sentences. An assault now classified as a 93-day misdemeanor would become a one-year misdemeanor or, if an official is injured, a two-year felony.

Neighboring Indiana is considering similar legislation this session, and bills have been introduced in Connecticut, Hawaii, Kansas, Massachusetts and New Hampshire in recent years.

Among those lobbying for the Michigan measure is Bieniewicz’s wife, Kris, who spoke to The Associated Press last month after leading practices for two youth basketball teams. “They’re (referees) out there on an island with no one to defend them,” she said.

Bieniewicz recounted a recent incident at one of her son’s games in which an opposing coach, angry about a non-call, was nose to nose with the scorekeeper.

“I don’t even know where I got the courage from, but I went up and yelled in his face: ‘Hey. My husband was the soccer referee that was just killed this past summer. It’s because of people like you with attitudes like you. This man asked you to walk. I suggest you walk.’

“Thankfully, he walked. He could have very easily taken a swing at me.”

While statistics on the number of attacks on officials is limited, referees nationwide report such incidents are on the rise.

Dworman said there were two attacks on Detroit-area basketball officials on the same day in 2013. In one, a female spectator struck an official in the face with a water bottle after a middle school game. In the other, a parent slugged an official following a junior varsity game, but the case was dropped before trial.

In April 2013, a 17-year-old player punched a referee after being called for a foul during a soccer game in Utah, near Salt Lake City. The referee died after a week in a coma; the teen pleaded guilty to a homicide charge.

And last week in western Michigan, a high school basketball referee was slammed to the ground while trying to break up a fight at the end of a boys’ game, said Barry Mano, founder and president of the National Association of Sports Officials, which supports laws targeting assaults on officials.

“We are living in an amped-up society. We are living in a world where people in some measure have lost respect for authority,” he said.

In John Bieniewicz’s case, a number of players testified that Saad had been issued a yellow card following a foul during the June 29 match and Bieniewicz was about to issue him a second one for being verbally abusive. That is when the referee was struck, the players said. Two yellow cards in the same game mean a player is ejected.

Supporters say Michigan’s bills would send a message that assaulting an official is serious and make people think twice. They worry about the ability to recruit referees, especially volunteers who complain about abuse from coaches and spectators.

The legislation’s future is uncertain because some conservatives in the Republican-led Legislature have concerns about treating assaults on a referee differently from other attacks.

“Since when did Lady Justice not have a blindfold on?” Sen. Patrick Colbeck of Canton Township said, arguing that people should be treated equally regardless of their jobs. Officials and others counter that people who attack human services caseworkers, utility workers, police officers and others already receive harsher penalties.

Sports officials work in hostile environments and every decision they make is going to upset someone, legislation sponsor Sen. Morris Hood III, a Detroit Democrat, said.

“If this legislation can preserve one life, then it’s well worth it,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Mike Householder in Redford Township, Michigan, contributed to this report.

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