Minnesota lawmakers say $1,000 fine will get unruly youth sports fans under control

Youth sports fans have gone wild, punching referees, throwing food onto the court, and following officials to their cars to dispute game calls they didn't agree with.

Minnesota lawmakers say leveling a $1,000 fine against unruly fans will help regain control of the playing field and help stem the flow of officials away from youth sports.

A bill allowing the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission to levy fines against violent or disruptive fans sailed through the House Public Safety committee on a 18-0 vote Tuesday and now heads to another House panel. State Rep. John Huot is the lead author and a 20-year veteran referee of football and basketball games.

"We have tough skin. We’re OK hearing we have bad calls. This is more than that. This attacks us personally," Huot, DFL-Rosemount, said in an interview.

The fine could be stacked on top of criminal charges in cases where youth sports attendees assault an official. A 45-year-old Detroit Lakes man has been charged with two misdemeanor crimes after throwing popcorn onto the court, grabbing a referee's shirt and tearing the whistle from his lanyard at a high school basketball game in January.

The financial penalty would also apply to fans who throw things onto the playing field, enter the field of play, or interfere with a player, coach or official during or after a game.

As written, Huot's bill would allow fines of up to $5,000. But the lawmaker said he planned to reduce the maximum fine to $1,000, an amount that has bipartisan support. 

Under the bill, high schools and youth sports leagues would be required to report incidents to the Amateur Sports Commission.

Regardless of whether the Legislature passes this measure, the Minnesota State High School League plans to increase its tracking and reporting of unruly incidents at games, Roger Aronson, a MSHSL representative told lawmakers.

"For every one (incident) we know about, there's 20 that we don't," he said. "We work really hard to attract officials. It’s not easy to get people to do these events. It’s largely volunteer. No one’s doing this for the money."

The measure won over Republicans and Democrats on the Public Safety committee Tuesday.

State Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, said his daughter stopped officiating in part because of the treatment she received from bad-behaving parents.

State Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, supported the $1,000 fine but said the money should be directed toward youth sports.

"For those that did lose their temper and cause a ruckus, they would be more inclined to pay the fine if they knew it was going to youth sports and not try to appeal it," Johnson said.

Under existing law, high school principals can ban unruly fans from attending games for one year. But the State High School League does not track how many attendees are on the banned list, Aronson said.

Verbal and physical abuse of officials has increased in the past five years, Huot said.

"When we have to legislate behavior, we’ve really hit rock bottom here," he said.