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
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.
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.