It’s a fixture of headlines that appear with disturbing regularity: violence against and abuse of sports officials at all levels. And soccer isn’t exempt from the pattern.
A well-documented phenomenon at both amateur and professional matches, instances of referee abuse are scattered across headlines from many professional leagues. Diego Costa, a striker for Atletico Madrid, was banned for eight games in May 2019 for allegedly saying something unfavorable about referee Jesus Gil Manzano’s mother. In 2016, a third division game in Brazil featured an irate player shoving the referee to the ground after receiving a red card. Moreover, officials for the Berlin Football Association refused to work sixth division games in October 2019 after a spike in violent incidents that season. Of the 109 documented instances of discrimination or violence in the Berlin league, referees were the subject of derision in 53 cases.
But it’s not just professional leagues where the behavior takes place. In fact, many of the more publicized incidents have come from amateur and youth leagues. The conversation was drawn into the spotlight in 2013 after Ricardo Portillo, an official in a recreational league in Utah, was punched in the head by a 17-year-old player and lay in a week-long coma before passing away. In Portillo’s eight years of officiating experience—not even in professional leagues—he’d been assaulted twice in attacks that left him nursing broken ribs and a broken leg. While this is certainly an exceptional case in the world of referee abuse, it should serve as a call to action and remind us that milder versions of the story play out on the pitch far more frequently.
Brian Barlow, a youth soccer referee from Oklahoma, has routinely dealt with unruly parents in his games. In response, he had an unorthodox solution: creating a Facebook page called Offside to showcase videos in which youth officials were being verbally abused. Barlow began giving $100 for each video submitted in an effort to hold spectators responsible for their histrionics. He told The New York Times that the page was intended to be a deterrent, a place where soccer fans could watch unhinged parents embarrass themselves, but also an opportunity for viewers to question whether they’re part of the problem. Since its founding, the page has nearly 60,000 followers and regularly posts links to articles about official abuse and personal stories and videos from games. And it doesn’t focus exclusively on soccer—hockey, lacrosse, basketball and baseball links are scattered across the posts, all emphasizing the mistreatment of officials in youth sports.
Of course, not all parents and players behave this way. But for the small number who do, it’s having disproportionate consequences for officials across the game. More than 70% of new referees decide to quit within three years of beginning, with the most common reason being fan and coach abuse, according to the National Association of Sports Officials. An increasing number of local U.S. leagues are struggling with a shortage of high school officials, a problem that trickles down to affect the players. Games might be canceled, times might be adjusted to cater to the available referees, and matches may have short-staffed officiating crews. It’s no wonder that, regardless of how much a prospective referee might love the game or want to give back to the community, getting paid a paltry wage to endure a deluge of verbal abuse simply isn’t worth it for many of them.
Coming up with solutions is not easy. A feedback cycle exists between professional and amateur sports. If the amateurs see the professionals throwing fits and yelling in response to an official’s call, then perhaps they’ll decide that such behavior is OK and begin emulating it in their own matches. And if amateur players get into the habit, then those who manage to advance to professional leagues will carry that mentality with them. Perhaps a starting point to address the issue is fostering interpersonal interactions off the playing field. If players and referees meet in a more informal setting to understand the difficulty of each other’s jobs and how they can better work together, then the empathy has a better chance of translating onto the playing field. The referee is no longer an evil figure who emerges from nothingness to work a game, but rather someone who tries just as hard as the players to do the job right. The goal is not to have players, coaches and parents worship officials, believing they do no wrong. Like the players, officials are human. They’ll make mistakes—even the best aren’t perfect. The goal is to recognize that disagreements will arise in a game as emotional as soccer, and instead of stamping out the emotion, clinics ought to help players and referees gain a better understanding of each other’s roles so that an instinctive emotional outburst doesn’t transform into something more dangerous.