your words have ramifications. In England, a soccer referee was reportedly forced to quit the Premier League after he allegedly mocked a disabled man on Snapchat.
A chair umpire in a U.S. Open tennis match stepped down from his seat and offered encouragement to a player who was struggling. The umpire was later suspended.
A basketball referee was banned from a 10-and-under league after questioning an African American girl about blue ribbons woven into her hair, which was in braids.
In Virginia, a coach complained after a soccer referee told his 16-year-old players that they were the “biggest bunch of crybabies he had seen in years.”
Just how much trouble can our words get us in? Besides getting complained about, suspended or banned by a league, can we get into legal trouble with words we use on the court or field?
Unless we defame or libel someone, probably not.
The Supreme Court of the United States has repeatedly upheld the right of people to speak even vile words to one another or to a group. Picketing a military funeral with signs disparaging the deceased officer, marching by neo-Nazis in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood that included Holocaust victims and burning the flag have all been deemed protected speech.
Thus, the likelihood that a sports official will be successfully sued or charged with a crime for pure speech is close to non-existent.
Defamation language harms a person’s reputation
A sports official could be sued for slander (speech) or libel (speech in writing) that publicly defames someone. Defamation is language that harms a person’s reputation. Calling a team a “group of crybabies” while on the field probably won’t get you sued. Going online to say that “Coach Bill Jones of Main Street High School teaches his team to cheat” may get you sued.
Remember that the organizations we work for have broad discretion in controlling our speech because we (and they) are engaged in a voluntary transaction: They have a game that needs a referee/umpire and we say, “Yes, we will do that game.”
When we accept a game, we accept a contract containing the “terms of engagement.” These terms typically include rules about speech the organization wants to enforce.
Restrictions on speech from your local league or association could include prohibitions on:
• Talking to the press about decisions made during the game.
NASO’s own Social Media Guidelines direct that referees “not engage in specific play and/or ruling evaluations/commentary whether it be for a game you worked, one that you witnessed or about the impact of officials in any sporting event.”
The bottom line is that your words have ramifications. While it is unlikely you will actually be sued for remarks you make on and around the field, public speech that defames a person can get you sued. Moreover, the league or association that you work for has broad power to suspend or terminate your relationship with them for speech that it deems improper.
This column is for informational purposes and not legal advice.
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