U.S. Soccer set to tackle ref abuse -- and our suggestions

After collecting data by surveying current and former referees, the Referee Working Group of U.S. Soccer's Youth Task Force has determined the need for U.S. Soccer to launch a campaign to combat referee abuse.

The Refereeing Working Group, one of the six groups that comprise the Task Force created in 2018, launched a formal study to confirm theories on why referee numbers are either decreasing or stagnant. In addition to the online survey, input was collected from focus groups composed of referees at Development Academy events.

"Within the data collected, it came as no surprise that verbal abuse was a systemic issue," read the U.S. Soccer statement. "Former referees stated that abuse from parents and spectators was the most common reason they quit, and was so bad that they did not feel they were working in a safe environment. While other issues were determined as well, verbal abuse was critical enough that the Working Group felt strongly that a specific campaign needed to be created to deal with this specific issue."

The Refereeing Working Group will proceed by designing some kind of respect-the-ref campaign, and determine how and when it will be launched. Because Soccer America has been covering this issue, here are some suggestions:

Last year, Soccer America's referee columnist Randy Vogt wrote a two-part series on "How to Retain Referees." A number of his suggestions had been implemented by certain leagues and proved to make positive impact. They include:

Start a Sportsmanship Program
Such as the one created by Rocco Amoroso for the Long Island Junior Soccer League (LIJSL) in 1980. Vogt explained that the "match referee grades each team on the conduct of players, coaches and spectators, overall game conduct and player appearance. The teams accumulating the most points in each division receive the LIJSL Sportsmanship Award, then proudly wear the Sportsmanship Patch they receive on their shirt sleeves." The impact from the refs' view was evident.

Start a Scout Program
In 2014, the East Hudson Youth Soccer League (EHYSL) started assigning four to six "scouts" to its venues who submit weekly reports on issues including sideline behavior and referee performance. The scouts are clearly identified, so coaches, parents and players are aware that they're being observed.

How to Retain Referees (Part 1): Start a Sportsmanship Program by Randy Vogt
How to Retain Referees (Part 2): Getting coaches and refs in same room by Randy Vogt

U.S. Soccer could create templates for programs such as the ones Vogt cites and make them available for leagues around the nation.

Help clubs control sideline behavior
In my experience, some clubs' parents and coaches are better behaved throughout the clubs' teams than others. And the clubs with less ref abusers tend to be those with more resources and larger staff, which enables them educate and control parents and coaches. Smaller clubs without paid staff tend to have less oversight over individual teams, lacking a club culture in which good behavior may even become a matter of pride. U.S. Soccer could identify clubs with the best reputations on sideline behavior and use their successful approach to create guidelines that smaller clubs could implement.

Focus heavily on the coaches
I strongly believe that how coaches treat referees profoundly impacts the behavior of players, parents and spectators. And particularly absurd is when referees get an earful from coaches who obviously never took the time to read the rulebook. U.S. Soccer and the organizations under its umbrella should make rule literacy a significant part of its coaches courses. The campaign could include videos explaining the rules and the ref challenges that mostly commonly spark dissent. Obviously, adults at youth games shouldn't scream at refs no matter what, but it's particularly frustrating when the dissent is unwarranted. Coaches and parents are frequently unfamiliar with the specifics of rules on handball, offside or back passes. It'd be fantastic if the upcoming campaign could hammer home the fact that coaches and parents who berate referees on offside calls are almost never in a position to make a judgment.

Ending ref abuse starts with the coaches by Mike Woitalla
Coaches should learn the rules -- and here's how by Beau Dure
Coaching young players to respect the ref by Ian Plenderleith

Referees frequently make mistakes at World Cups, European Championships and in MLS, the Bundesliga, EPL, Champions League, etc. Despite the introduction of video reviews, we still have complaints and endless postgame debates. Of course, youth refs aren't going to perform perfectly.

A big obstacle for campaigns aiming to create better behavior is that those mostly likely to pay attention usually aren't the ones creating the problems. That's why I think the success of U.S. Soccer's upcoming campaign depends much on impacting the clubs and coaches. They are most influential in creating a sideline culture that doesn't chase away referees.

14 comments about "U.S. Soccer set to tackle ref abuse -- and our suggestions".
  1. Georges Carraha, December 4, 2019 at 9:47 a.m.

    This issue is not as complicated as it seems.  Hold clubs accountable for the inappropriate behavior of Coaches, Players and Parents.  While the bad behavior is prevalent on TV, there is no reason for to see it at the Youth level.  First, states need to pass strong laws protecting referees and leagues need to follow suit with measures that punish clubs and coaches that are the usual suspects.  Create a two-strike system for players and coaches and parents will follow suit.  At the same time, Referees must also be responsible for knowing the FIFA Rules and the League rules that sometimes create bad situations.  Referees need to warn coaches before the game about bad behavior and the consequences.  Leagues need to partner with the communities and the media to produce PSAs and other types of messages to change the behavior. There will always be disrespectful people but taking preventive actions will send a strong signal against bad behavior.
    Finally, clubs and coaches need tobe mindful of the winning at all coast mind set.  A game is a game abd no one likes to lose but at the end there will be a win, a loss or a tie.  Accept it and move on.

  2. R2 Dad replied, December 4, 2019 at 2:41 p.m.

    It might not be complicated, but we are fighting human nature since there is no official regulatory body to manage this process. It's a form of regulatory capture. Yes clubs should be held accountable, but the referee reports go through the league offices. The leagues, just like the clubs, are managed by coaches. These coaches all know one another and their clubs, and don't want to upset the apple cart by suspending their friends for 3 or 5 matches, despite that coaches well-earned and long-standing reputation for abusing referees. Leagues are not serious about suspending and/or blackballing coaches. Given the competition between leagues to see who can lower their standards furthest in order to attract the most clubs, I don't see improvement happening any time soon.

  3. Bob Ashpole replied, December 4, 2019 at 4:02 p.m.

    What is USSF is not a regulatory body. What are the various USSF members is not regulatory bodies. Since when is a club not responsible to control its members?

    Generally speaking, "leagues" are often competitions, not organizations. 

    Bottom line: situations vary, but there is always someone responsible.

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, December 4, 2019 at 4:03 p.m.

    Wow. Some spell check function in the website changed all my "if"s to "is".

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, December 4, 2019 at 4:09 p.m.

    My apologies to the site manager. My browser had a spell check setting hidden under "autofill". Hopefully that was the culprit.

  6. Randy Vogt, December 4, 2019 at 12:50 p.m.

    My graduation from HS to college in 1980 coincided with my transition from refereeing intramural to travel team games in the Long Island Junior Soccer League (LIJSL). Perfect timing as Rocco Amoroso, concerned about misbehavior on soccer fields, started the LIJSL Sportsmanship Program that year and it's made a HUGE difference in behavior. At first, it was very challenging for me to ref the faster-paced travel team games so that Sportsmanship Program was particularly helpful to me. I've been wondering a good deal that if Rocco had not started that program, would I have quit refereeing, like so many other refs? Even today, I'd rather ref a youth league with a sportsmanship program or something similar than a league with no guidance. Agree 110% with Mike that it would be great if US Soccer could provide a template and guidance on how to start a Sportsmanship Program or a Scout Program but it would be up to volunteers to step up to get it going and that would help change behavior, just like Rocco did way back when.

  7. Ric Fonseca, December 4, 2019 at 1:56 p.m.

    When I coached at the collegiate level, four-year university and community college- I made it mandatory of my players to learn/study the LOTG, and even required the players throughout the duration of the season, to officiate the scrimmages.  Lastly, since the regular college soccer season was/is usually shorter than the academic semester, and since the team members also known as student athletes receive cademic collegiate credit while enrolled in the PE/Kinesiology soccer course and received a grade and two academic units, after competition was over, they were required to attended a regular lecture twice per week, when they learned in more detail the LOTG.  Their academic grade depended, of course of having been a member of the team, and their final attendance - usually three-four weeks - and some players even went so far as to be assigned to do local high school games for which they got paid.  Thus trying out for the team was an ardous process, making the team was a bonus, but they also had to be enrolled as a full-time student (12 academic units - including two for soccer) and in order to be academically eligible for the following year, they had/have to be enrolled and pass 24 acaemic units with a minimum of 2.0 gpa- I remember having to declare one of my most talented players, academically ineligible as he was one unit short and so he enrolled in the class, attended practices, etc., but did not compete in the regular season, and last I heard, he also refereed quite a few high school games. 

  8. Ben Myers, December 4, 2019 at 8:25 p.m.

    On a closely related topic, over the years I have seen only weak efforts to recruit and train new referees, except for the fairly large numbers of teens who take the course, get certified, figure the profession is an easy way to make money, and then drop out when confronted by an angry adult coach.  Let me state this differently.  There are only weak efforts to recruit, train and certify ADULT referees.  It is a dream to believe that a referee pool can be sustained ONLY by growing teen referees into competent adult referees.

  9. Bob Ashpole replied, December 5, 2019 at 12:03 a.m.

    Ben, the problem with your logic is that you are assuming that an older referee will react differently than a teenager would to being confronted by an angry adult coach. Your assumption would mean that we wouldn't be losing adult referees, but I don't hear anyone saying that the only referees leaving are teenagers. 

    I do agree that recruiting efforts should be directed at both adults and teens. In my experience, older referees draw assignments to adult matches even at grade 8. In my view teens are mostly assigned to youth matches. 

    I see the root problem as lack of respect for officials. That is what needs to be fixed.

  10. Ben Myers, December 5, 2019 at 8:30 a.m.

    The odds are high that an adult referee will respond better to referee abuse than a teen.  It's just that teens are more readily intimidated by adults, and adult coaches think they can get away with belligerent behavior when the ref is a teen.  Coaches have no idea with whom they are dealing when the center official is an adult, and this tends (not always) to tone down their behavior.

    And, yes, over the years I have seen teen referees boot coaches and adult referees badly shaken by obnoxious coaches.

    What we have now is an age gap between the teen referees and, say, the 30-year old ones.  From what I have seen, many teens work matches through their high school years and then do not make the extra effort to continue once in college, or after moving to another location.  So maybe we all have to make extra efforts to encourage teen referees to continue working matches when they move to another location.  Whatever location it is, the referee association there will welcome new but experienced referees with open arms.

    Although the root issue is lack of respect for officials, recruiting more referees does not hurt.

  11. Randy Vogt replied, December 6, 2019 at 12:36 p.m.

    I agree that some coaches often see young refs (as well as female refs) as easier to initimidate than older refs. But the best refs will have started in their teens to thirties and then progressed. I live on Long Island and the Long Island Soccer Referees Association (LISRA) has a very successful AR program with hundreds of current AR's doing games. Many of the best AR's, unfortunately, don't want to progress to the center even with pay in New York slightly more than half for AR compared to the ref. Worse, most quit after they go to college. I was a ref as a teen and know that refereeing while in college was sometimes a lonelier experience than participating in campus life but the former was ultimately much more rewarding for me. 

  12. George Miller, December 5, 2019 at 4:58 p.m.

    Ref retention: a registration process from hell, 2+ hours safe sport   4.5 hours onlin videos and test   3+ on site clinic
    10 possible jerseys to purchase, socks etc. I think it will hurt the recert #  add this to the teens already on edge from the parents issues above...  Us soccer needs to evaluate this after recerts are over to see the effect.

  13. George Miller, December 5, 2019 at 5:02 p.m.

    Carded coaches  loose points in team standings.  Every parent spoken to/warned and  certainly if there is a dismissal results in a carded coach and a drop in standings. If it is a relative of a player the player sits out a game.  I think this will fix it

  14. Bob Ashpole replied, December 5, 2019 at 7:51 p.m.

    It might, George, but I prefer to have Clubs demand and enforce respect for others by their players, coaches and spectators.

    I think expecting the referees to manage clubs is too much. Coaches, officials, club managers and competition managers all need to work together to ensure a successful youth program.

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