Law put to the test in youth league

NEWARK, NJ - A ball field. A Little League game. An upset parent.

NEWARK, NJ - A ball field. A Little League game. An upset parent.

Five years ago, New Jersey lawmakers took note of the potentially volatile mix of suburban sports and parental passion and toughened the penalties for assaults at youth athletic events. Now that law could be getting a high-profile test.

The organiser of a youth football league, apparently upset about his son's lack of playing time, has been charged with aggravated assault after punching a coach and knocking him unconscious after a game at the Jersey Shore yesterday, the authorities in Monmouth County said.

The league organiser, Mario Romano, 42, is accused of hitting the coach of his son's Pop Warner team, Peter Van Ruitenbeek, 44, after the two argued over when Romano's son would get to play in a game in Colts Neck, the authorities said.

Romano was charged under a law passed by the New Jersey Legislature in 2002 that increased the possible punishment for those who commit assaults during youth sporting events. Before the change, such offences were treated like misdemeanor disorderly conduct cases that were punishable by fines. Under the current statute, Romano could face up to 18 months in prison and be forced to pay more than $10,000 in fines.

The authorities said that the incident began around 2.30pm when Romano, who was watching his son's Pop Warner game at a field at Colts Neck High School, asked Van Ruitenbeek when his son would be allowed to enter the game, which featured players ranging in age from 12 to 14 years old.

They argued, but no punches were thrown. During a second confrontation after the game, however, Romano struck Van Ruitenbeek in the head, knocking him unconscious, the authorities said. Van Ruitenbeek was taken to a hospital in Neptune, where he was treated and released.

As of late Tuesday, Van Ruitenbeek had not returned repeated messages left for him seeking comment.

Romano declined to comment directly, but his lawyer, Raymond S Santiago, gave an account of what happened.

"The coach acted in an inappropriate and disrespectful way to Mr Romano," Santiago said.

Santiago said his client had been provoked by Van Ruitenbeek during what he called a profanity-tinged tirade. "He got in his face," Santiago said of the coach "and placed his hand on Mr Romano's throat."

It was then, Santiago said, that Romano, who is about 1,75m, struck Van Ruitenbeek, who Santiago said stands over two metres tall. The blow, from Romano's left hand, sent Van Ruitenbeek to the ground.

"I'm a fan of boxing, and I say that I think he caught him in the right place at the right time," Santiago said, referring to the effect of the punch, despite the height disparity between the two men. Romano was taken into custody and released on R35000 bail. - Sapa-AP