Is It Legal To Heckle A Referee At A Children's Sports Game?

There's nothing wrong with being a supportive parent but overzealous mums and dads can get carried away during their kids' sports games, especially if they deem the decision from an umpire or referee to be unfair towards their children. There are plenty of instances of parents behaving badly at kids' sports matches but is it legal for them to heckle the refs?

Referee surrounded image from Shutterstock

Competitive sports can bring out the best and worst in people. During games, emotions from spectators and players are high which can lead to fits of rage directed against each other or, more commonly, the referee who has the onerous task of enforcing the rules of the sport they are presiding. It's hard to please everybody and often referees have to make decisions that would upset one camp or another.

This doesn't just happen at big sporting events. Parents at children's sports matches have a long documented history of losing their bananas at umpires. I've seen parents at Brazilian Jiujitsu competitions getting into heated exchanges with referees over what they perceived to be a bad call. This type of thing happens all around the world, regardless of what kind of sport it is. In some serious cases, umpires even get physically assaulted.

But what's the harm in a bit of heckling? First off, let's address the more obvious actions that would land parents in hot water. If you get physical with an umpire, you could be liable to pay compensation to them under common law or under the Criminals Injuries Compensation Act.

As for verbal abuse, the content of what you say could potentially land you in legal hot water. The federal and state governments all have Australian discrimination laws in place to protect citizens from discrimination or harassment. For example the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 covers the following:

Discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, religion, political opinion, national extraction, social origin, age, medical record, criminal record, marital or relationship status, impairment, mental, intellectual or psychiatric disability, physical disability, nationality, sexual orientation, and trade union activity.

So if you're hurling racist or sexist abuse to the referee, they could end up suing you for damages in court.

Having said that, the umpire isn't impervious to legal repercussions if they don't do their jobs properly. According to lawfirm Slater + Gordon:

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.

So if you're a parent, think before you speak and act at you kid's next sports game. "Harmless" heckling could land you in the courts and cost you dearly. The same applies to spectators at amateur sports events.

Did you just catch yourself wondering if something was legal or not? Let us know and we may be able to answer it in our next Is It Legal? feature.


    From a parenting role one needs to remember "Is this the example I want to set for my kids?".

    I love heading to a local game and having a joke with the ref/umpire (especially when they get in on the joke). But not at their expense where I end up being abusive, that's just being a dick. It's just a game after all.

    For some children's sports, the referees/umpires themselves may be children as well. This can mean that in some cases, depending on what was said or done, it can be classified as assaulting a minor.

    What about heckling the other team, by the kids themselves? They are trying to limit it in the US:

    To give you some perspective, I was a referee for roughly 4 years (Children's, Teen's and Div 1 Mens games). Want to know the worst games to ref? Children's.

    The kids themselves are fine, they are just happy to be running around with friends. I couldn't give you scientifically accurate statistics but I'd say 60% of parent's will heckle the ref. Of that 60% at least 50% will do so in an over the top or aggressive manner.

    I've been yelled at, sworn at and threatened and it's always the parent's. Little Jimmy tripped over his own two feet, but his parent's swear a gang pushed him down and beat him with a bat. My fault, I should have called a penalty. You'll have parent's who don't even understand the game abuse you when they believe their kid has been wronged.

    I've seen grown adults get into fist fights with each other over their kids soccer game. Seriously, get a grip. What kind of example are you setting, not just for your kids but all 21 other kids on the field at that moment? My worst game ended up with both teams AND the crowd in a full on brawl, which all started with two women heckling. In that instance it wasn't a children's game but it does highlight how extreme some people get.

    The worst part? Most of your ref's are just doing it because they love the game. For most games, yes we get paid - it's not much though (unless you're doing top tier games). A lot of the time you are volunteering or filling in spots though.

    Realistically you should have no interaction with the game officials short of saying "Hello" or "Thank you" at the end of a game. So before you go and heckle/abuse them, just remember your kids don't have a game without them.

    I support refs.
    But free-speech is a pillar of free societies, and Australia already has asphyxiating free-speech limits.
    While reffing, the ref is a public figure, and so *should* be less protected from speech than a private figure.

    So the solution is:
    1: The parent should have a right to be verbally abusive within the limits of slander, sexual obscenity and incitement to violence.
    2: The ref should be encouraged to eject the abusive parent's child from the game when they feel the parent has been unreasonably abusive. (Supporting guidelines from the sporting organisation are appropriate).
    3: The sporting organisation should be encouraged to consider excluding the child of the abusive parent from further participation.

    I too think this is unfair to the child, but;
    1: The abuse is unfair to all participants and spectators and the ref.
    2: The child is a ward of the parent, so *of course* the parent's actions impact the child.
    3: My policy would fix the abuse problem within weeks.

    Unfortunately in Australia the only constitutionally-protected speech is political speech. Like freedom of association, freedom of travel, and freedom assembly, Australia gets residual freedom of speech via the Magna-Carta, but residual protections lose instantly to any conflict with public interest. Australians are being legislated out of their freedoms at an alarming rate, yet weirdly they view the new restrictions on their freedoms as empowering!

    Last edited 19/01/16 1:45 pm

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