Across the country, state youth soccer organizations are making bold new rules to try and address the verbal abuse and often physical threats made towards our match officials. I receive heartbreaking messages week after week from refs all around the world who have gotten physically assaulted or racially abused.
I also know that this isn't just a Soccer (proper Football) issue. I hear and see numerous reports of ugly instances in Basketball, Baseball, Football, and Hockey. The result of this disturbing fan behavior has seriously negative effects for all involved.
For the refs, especially at Grassroots, they often travel long distances, give up quality time away from their own families, spend significant amounts of physical energy to even step onto the pitch. When you add up the hours spent pre-match, the games and post-match, they barely get paid minimum wage.
They choose to ref often out of a love and a desire to serve and to help others enjoy the beautiful game. That makes the personal attacks, slanderous accusations of bias and threats to personal safety even more painful. Beyond the distress in the moment, these attacks can be traumatic and leave long lasting emotional and physical wounds. As an independent contractor, there is no safety net to support them once the damage is done.
For the coaches, who certainly have a part to play in this saga, the 80% turnover rate of refs within 3 years is not helpful. They often feel that their attempts to alter, dissent or manipulate referees decisions is actually a positive thing. As one coach told me, it's "their job to try and keep the refs honest". From my personal experience, they often don't understand how their behavior can contribute to a toxic environment.
States such as Utah, Colorado and Connecticut have put new guidelines designed with harsh penalties for anyone who verbally berates a ref. Additionally, the entire team can lose the right to have spectators for the entire season.
For me, it all comes down to enforcement and support. In our recertification courses, very little time is spent preparing referees to deal with the type of dissent and verbal abuse received almost on a weekly basis. We don't track yellow cards given to coach dissent at youth soccer. We don't record when parent sidelines require warnings or require parents to be dismissed.
Now the question is, will a "Zero Tolerance" policy help? It's certainly a step in the right direction. I think Zero Tolerance may be a misnomer. We are not trying to eliminate the atmosphere of a well played and contested match. I think we are just asking for common decency and respect. That's not too much to ask.