Is It Legal To Verbally Threaten Sports Officials?

If you've ever played amateur sports, you know how frustrating it can be to lose a big game due to the bumbling ineptitude of an umpire or referee. Most people understand that bad calls are part of the game and manage to keep their temper under control. But some players morph into Hulked-out John McEnroes, complete with swearing, yelling, name calling and shoving. Is this legal?

Photo: SMH

In addition to demonstrating terrible sportsmanship, players who flip out at officials could also be breaking the law. It largely depends on the severity of their behavior and whether any physical threats were made.

Obviously, physical assault is always a criminal offense -- you don't get a free pass to attack the ref just because it's the season's final and passions are running high. But what actually constitutes an assault?

Each state and territory are pretty rigorous in this department -- you could potentially face assault charges without throwing a single punch. Here's Queensland's definition as outlined in Section 245 of the Criminal Code:

A person who strikes, touches, or moves, or otherwise applies force of any kind to, the person of another, either directly or indirectly, without the other person's consent, or with the other person's consent if the consent is obtained by fraud, or who by any bodily act or gesture attempts or threatens to apply force of any kind to the person of another without the other person's consent, under such circumstances that the person making the attempt or threat has actually or apparently a present ability to effect the person's purpose, is said to assault that other person, and the act is called an assault.

In other words, giving the umpire or referee a single shove is all it takes. In fact, you don't even have to touch them. In some cases, an assault is deemed to have taken place due to verbal threats being made. As outlined on the FindLaw Australia website:

Threats to seriously injure, or kill another person is considered as an assault, but the threat has to create a fear that it would be carried out. Threats that are unlikely or impossible would not normally be considered as an assault. Threatening to kill or injure someone is a crime that is not taken lightly by the states. In Victoria for example, threats to kill as spelled out in s 20 of the Crimes Act carries with it a maximum of 10 years imprisonment if it is real, rather than fanciful.

Ironically, it would seem that the more gratuitously over-the-top your threat is, the less chance of charges being laid. Vowing to blow up their house could be construed as an assault, but vowing to blow up their whole suburb and dance on the ashes would probably fall under "fanciful".

So what happens if you are accused of assault by an official? According to Australian law firm Slater + Gordon, if an official is assaulted or threatened by a player, they can make a claim for compensation for any injury or damage caused. This could either fall under common law or, where a report is made to the police, under the Criminal Injuries Compensation Act. Depending on the size of your club, an internal investigation might be taken which could result in you being suspended or permanently booted from the team.

Naturally, you can expect to land in even hotter water if your temper tantrum includes insults that are racist, sexist or discriminatory in some other manner. This could potentially be in breach of Equal Opportunity laws, even though the official is not technically in your employ.

Generally, the only permissible defence in Court against a clear-cut assault charge is that you had no other option but to physically defend yourself against an attack. Somehow, we doubt a dodgy penalty decision qualifies as an attack. In short, don't be a dick. If you suffer from anger management issues, take a break from competitive sports and follow these tips.


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.


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