On Thanksgiving Thursday, I posted a blog about the abusive treatment of officials in our sports culture. By Saturday night, I watched a parent (coach) get ejected from a 10-year old soccer match. The scene was another example of a shameful (and unnecessary) issue that persists in our society.
The purpose of these last two posts is to call it out, and hopefully, make more people stop and think. Practical thought has to start pushing back against emotional outbursts.
My daughter was playing a team that was unbeaten in the tournament and hadn’t been scored on. The game was evenly played midway through the first half before our team scored to take a 1-0 lead. One team was excited and one team was mad. It was good stuff on the field.
A few minutes later, two players banged shoulders in our defensive end. The call could’ve gone either way and it went against the undefeated team. Their coaches went nuts and started screaming at the official. The referee started out explaining his call, but unfortunately, engaged in a shouting match with the head coach. It escalated, and the coach was thrown out.
The players – two teams of 10-year old girls – stood there in 32-degree weather while adults were in heated discourse.
It didn’t stop there. The parents continued to ride the official, with one clever guy shouting, “How much are they paying you? I’ll double it!” (If you take him at his word, he’s willing to pay double the amount of an imaginary bribe at a youth soccer game. Brilliant.)
The unbeaten team came back to win 2-1. They were the better team, and fortunately, the outcome was settled by the players. The head coach watched from the parking lot.
That same referee officiated our Friday night game. He was a male in his mid-50s. I spoke with him at halftime because I had volunteered to run the lines. There was a shortage of officials.
I asked him how many games he was working and his response was an all-too-common reality amidst this ongoing issue. He was officiating (solo) three games on Friday and eight games on Saturday. Yes, eight games in one day! Our Saturday night game would be his seventh and he had another match that followed at 8 p.m.
Eight games is too many for him or a FIFA referee.
As many people know, there is a serious shortage of event officials. The reason? It’s just not worth it. The abusive treatment is not worth whatever side-cash is being paid.
The following day, I asked my daughter what she thought of everything that had transpired. Here was her response:
“At first, I was mad, and then I got scared. They were just going crazy and we were like, ‘Can’t we just play?’ We didn’t know what to do and were just standing there forever.”
Mad and scared. I wrote in my first blog that a primary reason I want my daughter to play sports is to encounter conflict. The conflict I was referring to was situational, player to player, or player to coach. Adult to adult hostility isn’t a learning experience. It’s just ridiculous and almost makes you feel guilty for even being at the game.
The topic of disrespecting and berating officials is not new. I’m not writing anything people don’t already know. But it continues to get worse. So, what can we do?
Here are three points that can help improve treatment of officials:
It starts with the coaches in charge. They set the tone for their team. If the coaches treat officials with respect and demonstrate composure, it reduces the chances of parent outbursts. If they act irresponsibly, it’s a poor example and emboldens others to lash out.
Education. Prior to the season, a parent meeting to review rules and expectations is beneficial. Having a certified official speak to parents in that meeting is ideal. It helps to humanize umpires, referees, etc. Finally, coaches and parents should consider purchasing a rule book. Many times, frustration over calls is born of a misinterpretation or lack of knowledge of the rules.
Consequence. Even the best, most respected coaches can’t always control the actions of other adults. Consequence is sometimes the only way to send a message and maintain order. Here is an example. If a parent is yelling at or personally insults an official, they receive a warning. If they continue, the have to leave the premises or the game stops. And with that ejection, a two-game suspension is served. A second offense and they’re banned from all games.
Anyone who disagrees with those consequences might want to ask themselves why. It should be avoidable by 100 percent of the parents.
I’m sure you all have stories. If so, I’d love for you to share them. The more discussion, the more it can help to turn the tables.
Mark Gola is an author, former collegiate coach and athlete. He played Division I baseball at Rider University and was an assistant coach at Rider and Princeton University. Mark was an Assistant Athletic Director for Athletic Communications at The College of New Jersey for nine years and worked full time at the Dave Gallagher Baseball Academy for six years. He has also coached high school soccer and baseball.