Out of Bounds

Teen soccer referees are finding the toughest part of their job is keeping parents under control on the sidelines.

September 30, 2001|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Before the Saturday afternoon youth soccer match in Columbia can begin, the 17-year-old referee gets an earful from the two head coaches.

One warns him that parents from the two teams can't watch from the same sideline without risking a rumble; the other warns him of a father of one 12-year-old player who has gotten thrown off the field in a previous game for verbal abuse.

Aaron Riner, a senior at Liberty High School and the match's head referee, can only shake his head and smile. He's heard it all before.

"You'd be surprised how often this happens," he says. "It happens a lot."

Riner, a tall, athletic and enthusiastic teen with dreams of one day officiating a World Cup Match, enjoys most every part of being a referee at youth soccer games except for one: The adults.

Rarely has a game gone by (and that covers the more than 300 games he has refereed since he was 12) that Riner doesn't hear a coach or parent direct some unsportsmanlike remark at him. He calculates that the yells escalate to profanity perhaps "once a month."

Abusive parents have become a plague on youth soccer -- even teams with players as young as 4 and 5 have not been immune from incidents. And nobody understands this better than the hundreds of youngsters as young as 11 who spend their weekends helping referee their games.

"It's an epidemic," says Kathie Diapoulis, president of the Washington Area Girls Soccer League which boasts 365 girls soccer teams in Virginia, Maryland, DC and West Virginia. "You don't treat youth like that. It's called abuse."

Last June, a 16-year-old girl officiating an under-14 game for the girls' league was confronted by a group of angry Crofton parents who threatened and cursed her after a game. The incident drew national attention as an example of out-of-control soccer parents. The Crofton team was suspended by the league, but the ruling was appealed and the team reinstated for the fall season under a new name.

"The prevalence of harassment of soccer referees by coaches and spectators is a well documented fact of youth soccer life," league officials wrote in their investigation of the incident.

"As time passes and the depth and length of soccer experience in this country increases, one might well expect the frequency and intensity of referee harassment to decrease. This does not appear to be the case, however."

Soccer parents 'most abusive'

The trend has already been blamed for thinning the ranks of youth soccer referees. Last year, 570 people -- about one-third of Maryland's certified soccer referees -- dropped out of the profession. Of those, about three quarters were teens.

"There's been a real escalation of the problem," says Greg Watson, who serves as state referee administrator for the Maryland State Youth Soccer Association. "It's gotten to be a stretch just to provide enough referees to cover most weekends."

Even adult referees complain about the abuse they hear from coaches and parents. Last year, veteran Carroll County referee Ross Burbage sent all the parents of one under-10 girls team off the sidelines and into a nearby parking lot for bad language. Last spring, he officiated at a match where police had to be summoned to restrain a father.

"Soccer parents have replaced the Little League parents as the most abusive," says Alan Patrick, who assigns referees to youth games in Anne Arundel County for the Chesapeake Soccer Officials Association. "They're clueless."

For teens like Riner, working as a soccer referee can be an exhilarating experience -- a chance to learn the intricacies of their sport, earn money on weekends, and develop leadership skills. About one-quarter of the Maryland's certified soccer referees are 18 or younger.

That's partly out of necessity. League officials say it's become increasingly difficult to find adults willing to do the work. Serving as a referee, particularly one of the game's two assistant referee or sideline judges, may pay as little as $15 per match with no added compensation for transportation, equipment or uniform.

It also requires endurance. Center referees must chase the action up and down the field -- running more than some of the players.

Reid Smetzer, a 12-year-old from Finksburg, started working as a referee last year to earn extra money on the weekends. For someone his age, the pay is good, particularly when he is able to line up several games in a row.

Before he could serve as a referee, however, he had to attend a training course sponsored by the U.S. Soccer Federation, six nights of three hours each, and pass a test. It's the same standard adult referees face.

Running with the players wasn't a problem -- he's a halfback on his own soccer team. His father is a referee, too, so getting to games hasn't been an issue.

"It was something he and I could do together," says Brad Smetzer, a manufacturing plant manager. "The kids love him. He has a great rapport."

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