Bassel Saad had a bad day on the field. And now he’ll spend every day for at least eight years years thinking about it.
Playing for his weekend team in Livonia, Michigan, the 37-year-old former car mechanic had already picked up a yellow card for a foul during a game last June. Then, as the referee reached to pull a second card that would have sent him packing, he cocked back his fist and punched the ref.
“The referee is knocked out. He’s not waking up,” a 911 caller told dispatchers as Saad fled the scene.
Referee John Bieniewicz died from the blow.
A lawsuit over the death was just settled this weekend. Saad received an eight-year sentence after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
Before Bieniewicz’ death, the National Association of Sports Officials claimed that two other U.S. referees have died after being assaulted on the field. The facts of the most recent case — from 2013 — are almost identical to Saad’s, except for the fact that the puncher was a minor, and it happened in a youth league.
Reliable data on attacks against sports officials isn’t available, but NASO says they’re on the rise.
In June, a referee was attacked by a player and the player’s brother in Kentucky after he showed the player his second yellow card. Before that, a Florida player headbutted a ref twice and then slapped him, leaving him unconscious after he made a call the player didn’t like. And in 2013, also in Kentucky, an off-duty police officer attacked a 13-year old referee at a youth game.
“We are living in an amped-up society. We are living in a world where people in some measure have lost respect for authority,” Barry Mano, founder and president of the NASO, told the Associated Press earlier this year about the incidents.
Twenty-three states have passed laws that make assaults against sports officials more severe than regular assaults.
Michigan is not one of those states, but now the dead referee’s wife, Kris Bieniewicz, is trying to pressure the state to pass one of those laws.
“[Referees are] out there on an island with no one to defend them,” she said. (The law might have to wait till next session to get reviewed.)
In a courtroom during Saad’s trial, she held up the red card Saad never got to receive.
“I would like to serve Mr. Saad with the red card that he was entitled to,” she said.
Saad expressed remorse for his actions, and said “I didn’t know that this was going to happen” when he punched Bieniewicz.
In the sentencing for the case, the judge let Saad go with a few words of wisdom.
“For better or for worse, you’ve come to personify all that’s wrong with, in many people’s belief, the escalation of violence in sports,” the judge said. “You stand before this court as a man who’s been convicted of a senseless, childish act, taking another man’s life with no excuse or justification other than your own rage that you were unable to contain.”