When I was 14 years old, my father and I suited up in our ref uniforms — sewn by my sister, Susi — and were gathering our gear. While about to say good-bye to my mom and my grandmother, Oma asked, "How many yellow cards do you have to bring?"
We paused, then figured out why she asked, and explained: "We don't actually give the card to the player."
Oma laughed in her infectious way and sparked a delightful family-wide crack-up.
Decades later, when I check my ref bag before heading to the field, I often picture clear as day my Oma's wonderful laugh.
The fond family anecdote also comes to mind whenever we at Soccer America cover the challenges of referee recruitment and retainment.
Why did I start reffing when I was a kid and why did I continue?
A letter I discovered recently while looking for family documents explains it. My father wrote to his mother, my other Oma, on March 31, 1977, a month after my 13th birthday. It was written in German — my parents and grandparents were born in Berlin. It begins, "Liebe Mutti," and reads (I'm translating it rather literally, eg: Linienrichter):
"... I was the referee and Micha was employed as a line judge. He earned $7.50 (for three games). Last weekend he also earned $7.50. He is very proud, as Susi earns money as a babysitter. Because of school, he can't deliver newspapers and has no desire to be a babysitter.
"So he passed his test as Youth Referee after we attended some evening classes. Now he has to work a few games as line judge before he can referee. I referee (and get paid $7.50 per game) with Micha and his teammate as line judges. For me, I get the exercise I need and get paid for it."
That $2.50 in 1977 is $13 in 2023 money. It was a great source of teenage income for me.
The percentage of teenage kids who quit after a year of reffing has been cited as more than half and attributed largely to sideline abuse. I do remember some of that while reffing early on. In one instance, when I was 15 or 16, I stopped the game in the first half and walked to one of the men yelling at me from the sideline. (Parents and coaches were gathered on the same sideline.)
I asked if he was a coach. He said he wasn't.
"If you were, I could eject you," I said. "But the only thing I can do if you keep yelling at me is end this game."
That stopped the abuse from him and other parents. After the game, he apologized to me.
I attribute enjoying and continuing to referee to a combination of factors:
The support of my father: He didn't just take me to the ref course, but also my friends: John Richardson and David Smart. (In 1985, they'd be opposing goalkeepers in the Seattle Pacific vs. Davis & Elkins NCAA Division II semifinal.) Ted Sung came aboard soon. His dad owned Honolulu "Kimchi Burger" restaurants and gave us free kimchee for car-pooling Ted. Our younger defender at Iolani School, Todd Soto, also started reffing.
While I prepared for center reffing by running the line for dad, my friends were also part of our officiating team, so I got to hang out with them for part of that day.
The Hawaii state referee association: I remember getting to know other adult refs and them being supportive. At a year-end event, they awarded me with a Heuer stopwatch. Very cool.
Sideline behavior: I recall the adults overall being relatively well-behaved and don't recall being intimidated. (It could be fair to speculate it's gotten worse over the decades.)
Confidence. I felt I knew the rules well thanks to the class and passing the tests. I had played, watched and read about soccer since age 6. And the familiarity of, as an avid player, so frequently being amid the action may have also instilled confidence.
I'd venture that's a unique and fortuitous combination.
Whether it's sideline abuse-driven attrition, the proliferation of demand, or the difficulty of entry, the referee shortage has become severe. Here are some of the programs tackling the issue of recruiting and retaining young referees, and resources for youth soccer officiating:• Iowa Soccer innovates approach to training young refs, By Dan Woog (Soccer America)
Two other state associations received 2023 “Innovate to Grow” grants for referee programs: New Jersey Youth Soccer Referee Foundation's "Recreation Referee" and North Texas Soccer Association's Referee Initiative.• U.S. Youth Soccer's portal to each of its 54 state associations' websites for those interested in becoming refs: HERE.
• Cal South's “I Did It, So Can You!” program, partially funded by "Innovate to Grow," focuses on recruiting female referees.• SAY Soccer Referee Overview. ITGFund@ussoccer.org.