Family of Michigan soccer ref who was killed by player's punch speaks out

Man's family hopes his story helps change behavior toward sports officials

By Karen Drew - Reporter/Anchor

WESTLAND, Mich. - The family of a Westland soccer referee killed doing what he loved on the soccer field continues to speak out about what happened to him in hopes of preventing verbal and physical assault against other sports officials. 

In June of 2014, Kristen Bieniewicz's husband John was refereeing a game at Mies Park in Livonia. He was trying to issue a red card to player Bassel Saad for being verbally abusive when Saad knocked him unconscious. John died two days later

"That's a part of our life and if me speaking out about it makes somebody else think twice, then I've done something," Kristen said. "They're people, too. They all have a story. John wasn't just a ref. I mean he was a father, he was a husband, he was a brother, he was a son."

In a plea deal, Saad pleaded guilty to manslaughter and is serving eight years in prison

"He didn't just destroy our family, he destroyed his," Bieniewicz said. "So there's two families that are no more. Now, eventually he can probably go home and see his kids. My kids will never see their dad again and that's a tough one to swallow." 

Mother left raising 2 sons on own

Bieniewicz is raising her two sons, Kyle and Josh on her own now. Josh plays hockey and has starting officiating hockey games this year. Josh became a referee for soccer games shortly after his father died. 

"I actually never thought about quitting because I thought, and you know, I've been told by my dad and other people, that I was good at it an I liked doing it," Kyle Bieniewicz said. "The longer I do it the better I get, the higher level games I get then I can also teach younger people to do it." 

Kyle also coaches soccer. 

Bieniewicz coaches several sports at her younger son's school. She and Kyle have both witnessed bad behavior towards referees and they say it needs to change. 

"It's not just a soccer thing, it's a sports thing. It goes across every sport," Bieniewicz said. 

Officials feeling unsafe

In a survey by National Association of Sports Officials, nearly 48 percent of men and 45 percent of women said they felt unsafe or feared for their safety because of administrator coach player or spectator behavior. 

"We're not trying to change the game. We're not trying to change the people who play the game. We're not trying to change the people who ref the game, We're trying to change attitudes about the game and about referees. that's the root of the problem," Bieniewicz said. 

Bieniewicz wants to see the state stiffen penalties for anyone who assaults a sports official. She supports bills introduced by state senator Morris Hood in 2017. 

"It would make an assault of a referee an automatic felony and tack on, I  mean it's tiered, but the final step, it would tack on an extra five years um to whatever the actual sentence is," Bieniewicz said.  

Under Michigan state Senate bill 201:

  • An assault, battery or assault and battery would be a misdemeanor with up to one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
  • If the assault, battery or assault and battery caused bodily injury requiring medical attention it would be considered a felony -- with two years in prison and a $2,000 fine. 
  • If  the assault, battery or assault and battery caused serious impairment of a body function, that would bring five years in prison and an up to $5,000 fine.

Senate bill 200 would amend the code of criminal procedure to add the felonies proposed by senate bill 201 to the sentencing guidelines.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely the legislation will pass in it's current form.  

Senator Hood's office said SB 200 and SB 201 have been voted out of committee and are currently awaiting a vote from the Senate of the Whole. His office feels it's "unlikely the bills will move to a vote before the end of the legislative term. If this is the case, the bills will die and have to be reintroduced by a returning or newly elected legislator."

Senator Hood is termed out. Learn more about the bills here

If the legislation is not voted on, Bieniewicz said she will be disappointed, but she will continue bringing awareness to the issue. 

Other states passing laws

According to the National Association of Sports Officials, 21 states have passed officiating assault laws.

"I feel like you know, because of my extreme scenario, that I should do something to prevent this from happening from others," Kyle Bieniewicz said.

Kyle wants all of us to pay attention on the sidelines of the games we watch, and speak out to prevent unruly behavior towards referees.

"Make it more not OK.  Call people out on it. Reinforce that this intolerable behavior is actually intolerable," Kyle said. "From a more personal perspective, if you're sitting there watching your kids game, think if your kid was the ref."

Kristen is proud of her two sons following in their father's footsteps, becoming referees themselves. 

"It makes me realize that even though John's time with the kids was cut short, he made an impact on them," Bieniewicz said. "I mean, I see it in other things that they do and it's kind of like between the two of them, I have little pieces of you know my husband still around and it's kind of a cool thing."

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