Ahead of week 3 of this spring league, our Referee Coordinator's email included this:
"In one game, one of our refs was assaulted by a player after giving that player a red card. ... Another game was abandoned after the coach was red carded."
Such extreme incidents were only two among a hundred games. And only once have I been threatened with a punch and just a few times felt I needed to make a stealthy postgame exit to my car.
But it's not been hard to imagine how an escalation of dissent can lead to the type of awful news we frequently hear about ref abuse. This week, it included the arrest of a Jacksonville, Florida, off-duty police officer who was reported to have punched a ref's face during a youth game, "smacking the whistle from his mouth."
Also this week, The Athletic published, "The only thing that hasn’t happened yet is a referee getting murdered," an in-depth report on grassroots ref abuse in British soccer.
Christina Unkel, a former FIFA referee and FIFA Panel of Referees member and now Florida State Referee Administrator, tweeted that, "People in power need to help."
The treatment of referees in youth soccer is fueled by the tolerance of disrespect toward officials at the highest levels. The teenage boys who scream in my face when they don't like a call are watching famous players doing the same on TV without even getting a yellow card, as the rulebook mandates. They see it weekly in pro league and Champions League games. They would have seen it at the last World Cup, for which FIFA figured out how to make millimeter offside calls but allowed business as usual for berating refs.
This scene below is just one example of the countless you'll find during soccer TV viewing in which the referee did not caution for dissent.
The "people in power" who can help — who are obligated to help — are FIFA and its rule-making arm IFAB. By neglecting to require referees to enforce the dissent rule (and then supporting them when they do) and/or by not rewriting the rules to address the issue, they've virtually condoned players abusing referees.
As The Athletic article put it: "High-profile figures escaping any meaningful punishment leads to those incidents becoming normalized" and "have grassroots consequences."
No longer permitting such behavior by players may not extinguish the sideline problems — sports will always bring out the worst in people — but it would help, because on-field belligerence inflames the crowd, whether it be fans, parents or policemen.
Refereeing in Soccer America ...
Recent ref, rules and officiating coverage and commentary:
1. Tough but fair? A likely story By Paul Gardner
2. Should a 'soft' foul in the penalty area go unpunished? By Ian Plenderleith
3. The shameful scenes from Fulham's FA Cup loss to Man United By Mike Woitalla