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Setting standards for members’ behavior and enforcing those standards are among the most difficult challenges an officials association will face. It means anticipating the possibility of unacceptable conduct by a fellow official and trying to set up a mechanism for dealing with what may well be a confrontational situation. Officials are generally willing to face confrontation on the court or the field, if need be. However, they hate to have to get in an adverse situation with someone who is supposed to be a comrade in stripes.

Unfortunately, officials are human beings and subject to the same flaws and foibles as anyone else. You’d like to think that while you might miss a call here and there, none of your brother or sister officials would ever cross the line that would require some sort of discipline, punishment or even expulsion. However, although the Tim Donaghys and other bad apples of the officiating barrel are few and far between, they do exist and associations need to be ready to deal with them appropriately.

The key to an effective code of conduct is to establish clear standards; ensure all members are informed of the standards and hold everyone equally accountable to those standards. The key to an effective enforcement mechanism is to establish a transparent process that allows for the member to be fully informed of what it is he or she is alleged to have done or failed to do and what consequences might result; provide the member an opportunity to tell his or her side of the story and designate an unbiased person or persons who will decide if the allegations are substantiated and what penalties should be imposed.

Standards and the enforcement mechanism must be part of your association’s bylaws.

Naturally, the standards and the enforcement mechanism need to be set out in writing and part of the association bylaws, particularly since most states require the bylaws to address how someone can join or be removed from an association. An attorney’s advice will be of great help in developing the proper language. In reviewing an association’s disciplinary action against a member, the courts will first focus on whether there were well-defined standards of conduct that gave the member adequate notice of what was acceptable behavior. They will then turn to see if the association had a fair process set forth for dealing with the problem and if it followed its own rules. Associations most commonly get in trouble by failing to set clear standards or by not following their own rules.

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Obviously, the “punishment” needs to fit the “crime.” An official who misses a single game assignment would be treated differently than one who arrives drunk or curses a coach. Most groups have a relatively simple fine system for missed games, with the possibility of an appeal to the board or a committee. More serious offenses can lead to punishments ranging from heavier fines and suspensions to removal.

Some associations have discipline or ethics committees whose purpose is to address member misconduct. Others place that responsibility on the board. A separate committee has the advantage of at least appearing to be more neutral, since in most cases it will be the board recommending disciplinary action. In fact, the best practice is for all complaints against members to come through the board before being referred to the disciplinary committee.

If an official acts in a way that leads the board to conclude he or she should be sanctioned, it’s not going to be pretty. The official will be offended and angry at the allegation. If the board seeks to suspend or expel the official, it will be even worse because of what may be a significant financial impact in the form of lost games fees. That certainly ups the ante and increases the chances litigation will follow.

In order to maximize the association’s chances of prevailing, it should make sure its code of conduct and disciplinary process are clearly described in the bylaws and then meticulously follow its own rules.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice.

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Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.

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