It was a good game, a close game, and both teams competed hard. The home team wins by one and as you’re leaving the court, you notice one person who seems very upset approaching you in an aggressive manner. Pre-attack indicators like the balling up of fists, a crazed look in the eyes or a person looking around to see if others are watching are your first clues that something might be up. But before you can react, it happens. You’ve been physically assaulted and the person who did it is running away.
While the risk of something happening is low, knowing what to do if you are attacked is something that should become second nature for all working officials.
While more than 20 states now have laws that classify sports officials as a protected class under the law, and more states have pending legislation, officials themselves must know what steps to take after they have been assaulted. There are civil and possible criminal law matters that need to be considered and your immediate actions after you’ve been attacked will play a critical role in future legal proceedings.
Escape the Danger Zone
As soon as possible, get yourself to a place where you can gather your wits and be in a defensive position, recommends personal safety expert John Correia, owner and founder of Active Self Protection, whose self-defense videos on YouTube are watched by millions of people around the world every month. If the attack happens in the parking lot or outdoors, a safe place could be your car — lock the doors behind you. There also could be safety in the officials’ locker room if you can get there. You might need to run to a security post or lock yourself in a bathroom. There is also often safety in numbers, so getting to a location with other people or referees might be the best option. If you cannot get to a safe place, try to put a barrier between you and the attacker(s) and try to establish distance while making as much noise as possible to attract the attention of others who may be able to provide assistance.
“Being an official is an honorable thing,” Correia said.
“Unfortunately, you get noticed when things go wrong. So, try to head off things by proactively communicating with teams and coaches throughout the game so they humanize you. Because when people don’t see you as a person, then they are much more apt to do you harm. That’s a part of de-escalation, escape and avoidance; making sure you are more than just a uniform. You’re a person.”
Because officials work in a variety of ever-changing transitional spaces, Correia said it is vital they are always aware of their surroundings. That way, if something happens, they can escape. That includes knowing where exits are in case of an emergency, where security is to deal with problem fans and who oversees the event.
Call the Police
While this might seem obvious, many crimes go unreported, which means there is no official record of what took place. That includes crimes involving assaults on officials. Reporting the crime protects you in any future litigation and allows for the authorities to conduct a proper investigation. While reporting the incident to a school district or the person in charge of the event is fine, when a crime has taken place, you need to take the initiative.
“Generally speaking, whoever calls the police first is the one who is viewed as the victim when the officer shows up on the scene,” Correia said. “So once you’re out of the ‘danger zone,’ immediately get on the phone with 911 and tell them you have been attacked. Hopefully, if you are immobilized after an attack, someone will call on your behalf. Tell the police as much as you can about the person who attacked you.”
It is also important to note that filing a criminal complaint is a necessary first step if you plan on suing your attacker at some point. It is also required for NASO members who are making an insurance claim on the NASO Assault Protection Program. This program provides coverage for certain legal fees, medical expenses and game fee loss resulting from an assault.
However, the opposite is also true. If someone calls the police on you after an altercation, Correia recommends the opposite approach. Tell the police as little as possible until you speak with an attorney.
“The legal system is not built for regular people to navigate,” Correia said. “Thinking that you understand the law is a great way to wind up in jail.”
Depending on where your assault took place, there could be zero to dozens of witnesses. Many assaults on sports officials happen in the moments after the contest ends or during the competition. In these cases, it is likely the assault was witnessed, perhaps by a fellow official. While individuals from the public at large might be reticent about talking to you after seeing what happened, they will often hang around. You should make mental notes so when the police arrive, they can ask for witnesses or approach them. Try to remember identifiable marks on prospective witnesses: gender, race, hairstyle, color of clothes, where they were located at the time the attack took place, etc.
In today’s world, many people are recording confrontations on cellphones. This means someone may have video of the attack. This is something prosecutors can subpoena or your personal attorney can also gather. Also, if the attack happened in a parking lot or inside of a facility, most of these places have surveillance cameras and the police or your attorney may have access to the footage.
Find a Good Lawyer
In the realm of personal injury law, assault is defined as “a purposeful act by one person that creates a fear of imminent harmful or offensive contact in another.” When it is made the subject of a civil case, it is known in legal terminology as an intentional tort.
The findings in a criminal case (a guilty or not guilty verdict, a plea agreement, and any findings of fact) can sometimes be used as evidence in a civil case under a doctrine called collateral estoppel.
“If someone assaults you, it’s almost certainly going to be considered a crime, and chances are the assailant is going to get charged with a criminal offense, especially if you’re cooperative with law enforcement,” said attorney David Berg. “You should wait until the criminal trial is over before filing a civil lawsuit to see what happens in the criminal trial. If a motion (in the civil case) is granted for partial summary judgment to liability, then the only issue you will need to address in the civil case is your damages. You would not need to relitigate the issue of liability, since it’s essentially been established via the criminal conviction.”
The simple fear of harmful or offensive touching is usually enough for an assault to have occurred; if the touching occurs, the physical contact is usually considered a battery in civil law, although both claims are often made together.
While you might think you have an airtight case, remember the person you are suing is going to have an attorney, too, according to Berg. And that attorney will have his or her client’s best interest in mind, not yours.
Those who are NASO members get assistance in locating an attorney in their area who can help with their case. If you are not an NASO member, check for recommendations in your area. Look for an attorney who specializes in personal injury.
Your assigner and conference supervisor should be one of the first people you contact after the police. Assigners can work with the appropriate bodies to make the environment safer for the next officials who will have to work at the site where your attack took place. Notifying your supervisor is also an important protocol if criminal charges are filed or there is a civil suit involved as one of the first questions that will be asked after an assault in the workplace is was your supervisor informed, according to Berg.
Go See A Doctor
If you were physically assaulted — shoved, kicked, punched, etc. — seek the treatment of a medical provider as soon as possible. Your first reaction might be, “I’m OK,” but like people who have been involved in car accidents, the result of the body being traumatized might not show any initial symptoms. Going to a doctor and explaining what happened gives health care providers the information they need to start a physical examination of you, according to personal injury attorney T. J. Grimaldi of Tampa, Fla.
“The first step after any form of assault is to seek medical attention,” Grimaldi said. “Even if you’re unsure about the extent of your wounds. Many problems don’t show immediate symptoms, and you could put your life at risk by avoiding medical care.”
Seek Mental Health Treatment
Your mental health can also be affected after being put through an emotional situation like physical threats or attacks.
Signs that should cause you concern are things like panic attacks, nightmares, an inability to sleep, change of mood or loss of appetite. Post-traumatic stress disorder and depression are also possible results of being attacked. These are serious medical conditions that can be diagnosed and treated only by a mental health professional.
Seth J. Gillihan, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor of psychology in the psychiatry department at the University of Pennsylvania. He said talking to someone about the event, like a family member or friend, is a good start.
“Whatever the source, trauma leaves its imprint on the brain,” Gillihan said. “If you find that you’re struggling to recover from your trauma, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.”
Keep a Paper Trail
Start a journal and folder to keep all documents of the incident at hand, Grimaldi recommends. Details should include the time and place of the attack, what was said or done to you and by whom. Include the first time you called the police and if you didn’t call 911 yourself, note who did, and be sure to get a copy of the police report, including the report number.
If you were physically assaulted, document your injuries with photographs and/or video. This will provide evidence in both your criminal and civil cases. Find someone who has a good camera and ask him or her to take the photographs for you. This provides an additional witness to the injuries you incurred. Try to get these images as soon as possible after the attack and you can continue to take these images in the days and weeks ahead to show how long it took to heal from your attack.
“After creating written and visual documents on the assault, you can return to these notes when you meet with police and prosecutors,” Grimaldi said. “The written record reduces the likelihood that you won’t remember a key detail or convince yourself that the situation was different than you thought.”
When corresponding with your assigner or the person at the school who you first notified about the attack, do it via certified mail. Copy and keep all future corresponding material with all parties involved related to the incident. If you were treated at a medical facility, keep all medical bills and insurance claims.
Do not talk about your case on social media. The more details you give, the more the attorneys involved in your case will use it against you. Media silence is the best policy.
Remember you are not only standing up for yourself, you are standing up for the entire officiating community. You want to create a safer environment for the next woman or man who is assigned a game at the location of your attack.
You might be pressured to drop the charges or the pending litigation. That is a personal choice. However, remember the decisions you make about your case will have ramifications for other officials as well. All officials have a right to work in a safe environment. Pursuing legal action will help ensure everyone who dons the stripes in the future does so in a safe setting.
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