By Randy Vogt
In her Youth Soccer Insider column on Aug. 15, Sarah Weld laments the lack of women coaches and refs in youth soccer. It’s an oddity that I’ve noticed and am concerned about as well. The book I authored, "Preventive Officiating," is the only soccer referee book that I know of that uses the pronoun “she” as much as “he” to describe referees and has the same number of female soccer ref models as male ref models.
I cannot write with any great insight as to why there’s a lack of female coaches but would like to offer some reasons and remedies to have more women become and continue as referees.
The hierarchy of FIFA, the USSF and NCAA are all looking to promote good female referees to the highest levels. If the United States did not play in the Women’s World Cup final, chances are that American Kari Seitz would have been given the assignment. She and two American assistant referees, Marlene Duffy and Veronica Perez, wound up officiating the third-place game instead.
One of the referee organizations that I belong to, the Long Island Soccer Referees Association (LISRA), now has a female President, Cathy Caldwell. LISRA is way ahead of the United States in this regard as we had an African-American President, Barrington Lawson, a decade before Barack Obama was inaugurated.
Here are some ideas why females make up nearly 50 percent of soccer players in the United States but are very much still a novelty as referees:
Intimidation. As Sarah wrote, the great majority of youth soccer coaches are men and some of them will try to intimidate a female ref much more than a male ref.
“We lose female refs three times more frequently than male refs due to verbal abuse,” LISRA President Caldwell said. “When I first started, I refereed three games and could not take the abuse from the adults. I called up the assignor, Nanci Apostolides, and told her that I did not want to referee anymore but she convinced me to stick with it. More than a decade later, I’m still refereeing!”
“But just last weekend, I spoke to a women who had taken the referee course but chose not to referee due to the lack of respect and intimidation she witnessed by both coaches and parents,” she added.
I’m aware of some youth soccer coaches saying derogatory comments about a referee (they do not know) based solely on the gender or age of the ref to their players before the game. Do you think those players then will go onto the field and actually respect the ref?
“In addition, many male coaches are uncomfortable with a woman refereeing their games,” Caldwell added. “More than once, I have called a coach to get field directions and inform him that I am the referee for their game and there is a second or two of silence followed by an ‘Oh.’’’
Females tend to view soccer in more social terms than men. As a referee advances, he or she will officiate with other officials -- one ref and two assistant refs. But generally the first games of a career are the boys U-7 intramural game or the girls U-10 travel team match that uses just one referee and two club linesmen (that the teams provide to help out). I’ve found that females are more excited to officiate with their friends than males. Years ago, as I was about to ref a girls U-15 game, I heard the girls talking with excitement about which of their teammates they would be officiating with in intramural games later that day. Unfortunately, that club was the exception as most intramural games are officiated by one ref. No matter your gender, refereeing by yourself can be very lonely.
“I ask the assignors to pair up the few women in the chapter with me as we have such a good time officiating together,” Caldwell commented. “When I work with other women I find an immediate bond.”
Lack of open bathrooms in youth soccer. Generally, the lack of bathrooms is not a problem for the female player who is playing one game a day or the female assistant referee who (at least on Long Island) is often officiating one game per day. But it’s a huge problem for the female ref who is refereeing 2-4 games per day. Take into account that the officials should be at the field 30 minutes before kickoff and a ref is often spending 5-6 hours at a soccer field.
So what do female refs do if there’s no bathroom? They’ve told me that they do not drink water at all, a very unhealthy choice, or take time between matches to drive to a building with a bathroom, delaying the next game.
The great majority of youth soccer games that I have officiated did not have a bathroom at the field. But the times, thankfully, are changing. Years ago, youth soccer was often played at schools (closed on weekends) and also sometimes at parks (with open bathrooms). Many youth soccer clubs now maintain their own soccer complexes with bathrooms. If they did not build a bathroom, they bring in a few port-a-potties, not a very good option for either gender, but particularly for women. I’ve never heard men talk about whether the port-a-potties are clean but it’s a frequent topic of conversation among women at soccer games.
Summarizing, if youth soccer clubs and leagues get rid of verbally abusive coaches and used their resources to have three officials for all games plus build and maintain bathrooms, the number of refs would increase but particularly on the female side.
(Randy Vogt has officiated over 8,000 games during the past three decades, from professional matches in front of thousands to six-year-olds being cheered on by very enthusiastic parents. In his book, Preventive Officiating, he shares his wisdom gleaned from thousands of games and hundreds of clinics to help referees not only survive but thrive on the soccer field. You can visit the book’s website at http://www.preventiveofficiating.com/)