Youth Beat: Refs' Difficult Job Made Harder

Of course, it's wonderful that there's so much soccer on American television. Young players watch high-level soccer, then take the field trying to emulate it.

Let's just hope they're not listening too closely to the commentary, which frequently encourages the kind of soccer that we don't want from our young players - or from any players, for that matter.

While providing color commentary for Olympic men's soccer, former U.S. national team defender Marcelo Balboa greeted a midfield foul in which a player was tripped while running at full speed before tumbling to the ground with, "Great play!"

Balboa has, after a foul in which the player needed to be stretchered off, praised the defender by saying, "You got to take him down. ... You got to kick him."

A player gets scythed down from behind and the defender gets hailed because, "You gotta do something to slow him down."

A soccer game starts off with a series of fouls that would leave anyone looking for the Beautiful Game sadly discouraged, but Balboa is pleased because, "That's a good start. Foul them and slow it down. That's how you slow down the game of soccer. ... You foul them and don't let them get their rhythm."

Balboa is just one of the many commentators who, instead of denouncing the cheats, heaps accolades on them. Spend a weekend watching MLS games and you'll hear transgressions described in positive terms. There are "intelligent fouls," "smart fouls" and "professional fouls." I've heard a dangerous tackle from behind described as a "veteran play."

"When I hear that, I'm like, 'Oh my god!'" says Paul Tamberino, U.S. Soccer's Director of Referee Development. "When one of our former national team players, whoever it is, makes comments like that, it does filter down to the grassroots.

"You've got young players who used to idolize the guy hearing that and they're liable to think that's how they should play. [The commentators] are teaching the negative aspects of playing and coaching and that's not how it should be portrayed."

The last thing we need is young players believing they should rely on fouling. In fact, the USA's dearth of players skillful enough to defend without fouling is a liability. Remember, at the 2006 World Cup the USA was poised to upset Italy before two Americans were red-carded for reckless fouls. Or more recently at the Summer Olympics, the men squandered a lead over the Netherlands because of a bad tackle.

In addition to condoning foul play, ignorance of the rules by TV commentators often has them criticize referees incorrectly. Among the common misconceptions passed down by the commentators is exonerating players for fouls because of a lack of intent, when in fact the rules require a punishment for fouls regardless of intent. (Only on handballs is intent still a criterion.)

For referees, "experts" encouraging foul play on national television or misrepresenting the rules only makes an already difficult job harder. Brian Hall, a four-time MLS Referee of the Year who officiated games at the 2002 World Cup, is now U.S. Soccer's Manager of Assessment and Training. Like Tamberino, Hall believes the large turnover in registered referees - about a third of the nation's 141,000 refs drop out every year - is caused in great part by sideline abuse that drives refs out of the game.

"To tackle the abuse problem, we've got to do a better job educating parents and coaches on the rules of the game and conduct," says Hall. "At the same time, we have to do a better job at the professional level, because that's the No. 1 thing they see. What happens at the top flows downward.

"And when they see something on television, they think it's OK. Or if they hear a comment from a former national team player or former top level coach, they take that as gospel when in reality it's not. And the people making those comments often have no clue as to what the heck they're saying."

Besides the TV commentators who misinterpret rules and encourage foul play, the behavior of coaches and players influences behavior at the grass-roots level. As does the manner in which referees deal with transgressions.

' In MLS, for example, dissent toward the referee commonly goes unpunished despite the rules being quite clear that a player must be shown the yellow card if he "shows dissent by word or action."

The English FA, recognizing that English Premier League players have gotten out of hand, has launched the "Respect" campaign.

"We have reached tipping point with regards to dissent and have to now say enough is enough," says FA chairman Lord Triesman. "It will be hard to change this culture in our sport but we've got to be consistent in our attempts to do so."

At the forefront of the FA Respect program are instructions to referees to deal "firmly" with dissent. In aiming to stamp out the swarming of referees by players, the FA is stipulating that only the captain address the referee. A key impetus for the program's launch was the dropout rate of English referees at all levels.

Besides hoping that better behavior by pro role models influences the grassroots level, the FA has also instituted guidelines for youth games, requiring that spectators watch from the opposite side of the field from the coaches and that they watch from a designated spectators' area two yards from the sideline.

Coaches, players and parents are encouraged to sign a Code of Conduct form, similar to what some American leagues use through the Positive Coaching Alliance.

Tamberino says U.S. Soccer is considering a similar campaign. A major concern is that many teenage referees, on whom youth leagues depend greatly, quit because of sideline abuse.

"As you referee through the years and get better, you train yourself to hear less and less from the sidelines and you're not be bothered by some parent barking at you," says Mark Thompson, a Northern California referee for 30 years who started officiating at age 12 and has whistled youth, college and pro games. "But if you're 12, 13 or 14, it might bother you a lot. And I would say that in 90 percent of youth games you hear at least some negative shouting from parents."

U.S. Soccer's Referee Program oversees refereeing education at all levels and has recently expanded the department. One of its innovations is a "Referee Week in Review" feature on in which Hall assesses major refereeing decisions accompanied by video.

"We have increased sharply the resources behind our referee program in the last two years," says U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. "First by adding full-time officials - we're one of only a handful of countries that have made this move - and more recently by reorganizing our referee department.  Adding two highly respected former officials, Paul Tamberino and Brian Hall, has been a huge plus.

"Over the next year or two, we will continue these efforts at the top level and also initiate additional programs at developmental and grassroots levels."

Improving refereeing through education and by expanding the pool of refs is obviously crucial for American soccer. Changing the attitude of parents and coaches on the sidelines of youth games is an even bigger challenge.

(This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)


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