I don’t use this blog very often anymore—my preference for playing mind-numbing video games rather than enhancing my mental capacity after a ten-hour day at work probably has something to do with it, and as much fun as writing sports previews and personal articles were, I have never been as dedicated to my writing and analysis to build up any sort of following that would make me prioritize it.
This weekend, however, something happened to me that I wanted to put out in the public forum.
On Saturday afternoon, I was refereeing an Under-10 boys travel soccer game. I have been refereeing now for eight years, having been encouraged to register with my club teammate by both of our mothers as we were in the middle of eighth grade. While I am nowhere near the level of fitness that I used to be (i.e. I’ve gotten a bit tubby), I very much enjoy refereeing, and hope to continue to do so for many years. Now that I am a recent college graduate and am working full-time, I do not need to continue to ref as consistently—after coming home from school I would try to pick up anywhere between 40 to 50 games in the month between my return home in mid-May and the end of the season in mid-June—but I continue to try and pick up as many games as I reasonably can on two counts, the first of which is my never-ending love for the game, which developed during the time I played high-level travel soccer (through high school—subtle brag; I wasn’t great by any means, but I got to start in the same lineup as a current MLS player when I was in high school, so that was cool) and has continued to rise as I’ve gotten lazier. The other is my recognition of the relative shortage of referees in the game.
It is exciting to see that the game is growing throughout northern Illinois—when I was younger, there were five major teams that I can remember: Eclipse, the Hinsdale Hawks, the Chicago Blast, the Downers Grove Roadrunners, and the Berwyn Blazers were some of the big clubs within a ten-mile radius of my home in Clarendon Hills. Today, I can think of eleven off the top of my head, including Eclipse, the Blast, the Roadrunners, and the Blazers, and now also including Team Elmhurst, Wizards, AYSO 300, Chicago Empire FC, OBSC, LTSC, and LaGrange Celtics. In order for the game to continue to thrive, though, referees are inherently necessary; however, incidents like the one I faced on Saturday are the reason that referee participation is on the decline.
The events that led up to this are inconsequential, so long as I was not blatantly making calls towards one team or another; this was my first game refereeing for the home team in over two years, and I believe I called a fair game, as evidenced by the fact that the coaches of both teams, while vocal towards their players for the duration of the match, never once complained about my calls. The parents of the away team, however, were a different story.
Following the final whistle, I walked back to my bag, and a player’s mother stormed up to me and demanded that I provide her with my name and information. I had another game to get to, and was not obligated to provide any information, so I declined to offer it. She then asked me for my credentials, so she could confirm that I had passed my referee test. I replied saying I did not need to provide that information either, as the fact that I had a 2019 USSF badge was indicative of the fact I was properly credentialed for the game. She continued to press me for information, and I continued to deny her that information, packing my bag so that once the players had finished their handshake line I could offer them a “good game” and go on to my next match.
From here, things escalated further; the woman’s husband came up to me and said “Aw shut up, are you kidding me? Just give her what she asked for!” I continued to deny the request, indicating that I was planning to leave and that I would not provide any information. As he walked away, he called me a “f****** douche,” not at an elevated volume but clearly intended to be loud enough for me to hear. I asked him what he had called me, and he responded that he said what he did because I had disrespected his wife, stepping back towards me in an intimidating fashion. During this interaction, three more parents from the same team attempted to crowd me and take my picture to be sent in to the league office.
Fortunately, the president of the home team was at the game, and along with the staff coach of the that team, spoke up to encourage the visiting parents to leave me alone and move on to the parking lot. While I was confident that nothing would escalate further beyond that, I was still shaken, and the president offered to help me submit a report to the league and walk me back to my car. I declined, as I didn’t need any more people getting involved in the situation and needed to make it to my next game, but I obtained his contact information to allow for the verification of the events that took place, and I submitted my own objective report to the league earlier today.
There are more games to referee than ever—a great opportunity to make money, get exercise, and enjoy exceptional recreation simultaneously—but many are wary of the amount of responsibility and abuse that comes with the position. Having played soccer for a long time, I am somewhat used to the yelling, and take advantage of the lack of referees by virtually having my pick of available matches I want each season (I have 34 games this fall). While monetarily that’s great for me, this deficit of officials is not good for the game; I refereed a high-level Under-18 game yesterday where I didn’t have any assistant referees (the referee from the previous game offered to stay, and we did the game together). Showing up to work a game alone is not fun. Being called derogatory names at a game is worse; a twelve year-old could have refereed that U10 game, and if they were in the position that I was, I believe that there is a significant chance that they would not continue refereeing following that. There are others that have heard similar stories and choose not to register themselves, or their children, to be referees.
I doubt that anyone that might ever read this could possibly do anything drastic about the massive amounts of abuse heaped on referees by parents, and sometimes even coaches and players. Heckling referees is so common that it’s virtually an American pastime. But that doesn’t mean that people are entitled to say whatever they want, especially at the youth level, when almost all of the games are helmed by people like me, for whom refereeing is a hobby rather than something they are wholly dedicated to.
So, with that, I have a few final points to make. The first of those is this: I encourage those that are willing and able to step in and help referee matches, in soccer and in other youth sports, to please do so. 90 percent of the games I have officiated have come off without a hitch, and in those that had some sort of issue, I received excellent training to handle the situations at hand, and have consistently gotten great support from my referee assignor. This disturbing incident has even furthered my passion for the game, and furthered my desire to see more people in the sport—there are plenty of fantastic opportunities to be had, as refereeing provides great leadership opportunities while also padding your pocket—and those that stepped up to defend me assured me that there are many great people in the game. There are so many young people picking up this great game, and many others, and denying them the proper structure to play due to a lack of officials would be demoralizing on multiple counts.
My incident showed, however, that there is still a sense of entitlement that the referee is there to do everything right, and to take any criticism that comes their way without complaint. We officials are not perfect—while I am sure I was correct in my handling of the game scenario that spurred these events, I am sure I made multiple mistakes in that game outside of that—and this is not something that we are required to do. There isn’t a whole lot of training involved, sure, but when the shortage is forcing a lot of referees to give up a lot of their weekends to assure games can properly proceed, losing even a few more officials than we already have would leave leagues perilously short of proper referees.
So please, try to find some restraint within yourself to really yell at officials; true heckling is generally acceptable (unless it is a younger official; in which case, use common sense—don’t yell at a young teen), and so is an appropriate questioning of a call (my coach growing up was very vocal, and very good at this), as most officials, especially once they reach my age, will not take any comments personally, and if they are good at what they do, perhaps seek to clarify why they did what they did. But the incredibly rude and very personal insult that I faced, and the numerous other ones many other officials have to deal with, are not acceptable. I am as much of a competitor as the next guy, but we have to remember that the game is just a game, and that the official is simply trying their best to make sure the game is fair. Additionally, if you see a coach, player, or another parent berating an official, don’t egg them on for your amusement; encourage them to recognize the reality of what they are doing. As the game continues to grow, particularly in this region of the world, and even of the country, it is crucial to maintain its integrity, and if referees are going to continue to face these types of situations on a regular basis, then the game’s rise will be greatly halted as quickly as it has started.