Fewer soccer referees get a kick out of officiating expanding sport

Shortage grows as youths, adults find job unappealing

Howard At Play

October 06, 2002|By Nathan Max | Nathan Max,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

There is a looming crisis building for several soccer organizations in Howard County and across Maryland. This year, 750 soccer referees have decided to stop officiating, and if the alarming turnover rate is not stopped soon there could soon be a serious shortage of high-caliber officials in the state.

Although there are 1,862 registered referees to officiate Maryland games, according to the state referee administrator, Greg Watson, the proliferation of play at all levels and across all age groups is putting an increasing strain on soccer leagues.

"It's a significant problem," said Dario Broccolino, commissioner of the Columbia Soccer Referees Association, who is in charge of assigning officials to all National Capital Soccer League and Washington Area Girls Soccer League games that are played in Columbia.

"I don't think the real ramifications have started, but they're going to start. There's a drop-off of high-quality officials to do important games, and that day is rapidly approaching. The supply of officials is not keeping up with the demand," said Broccolino.

In fact, the drop-off has begun.

According to Watson, the state would like to assign officials with a minimum Grade Seven classification to high-level youth club games. A Grade Seven referee has, on average, 10 years of experience and has been through extensive training. But because of a shortage, the state is being forced to use lower-classified Grade Eight officials for certain games.

And at the lower levels of youth soccer, sometimes there are no referees.

Soccer advocates say there are a number of reasons so many officials quit.

Most obvious is the abuse referees often must endure from spectators, coaches and players. Last season, three cases of abuse of officials were reported in Maryland. One of the guilty parties was a spectator, one was a coach and one was a player.

"There's got to be a reason why you would want to work that job," said River Hill boys soccer coach Bill Stara, who is also coaching director of the Soccer Association of Colum- bia/Howard County.

"Is it enjoyable for those young people to do, so that they would want to come back again? I don't know if it is. How enjoyable is it when you're getting yelled at by the parents?"

As a partial solution, the Maryland State Soccer Association hopes to begin a mentoring program to ease the adjustment period for new referees and help them deal with the problems they will face.

Broccolino, however, offered a different explanation for the high turnover. Soccer organizations' strategy, he said, is to recruit teen-agers as referees. Broccolino thinks this has backfired for a number of reasons.

"Going after kids is doomed to failure," Broccolino said. "When kids are 14 to 15, the fields are all scattered about and they need to get their parents to drive them. When they're 16, they want jobs that are year-round and not just eight weeks in the fall and eight weeks in the spring.

"There's also this role-reversal where kids are called on to control adults. Some of the kids aren't emotionally mature enough to handle that. And if they stick with you until they're 18, if they go off to college ... that's it. If you get an adult, they're usually going to stay."

But getting adults is not easy, according to other Howard County soccer officials.

"I agree we need more adults, but I'm realistic because it's more difficult to get referees who are that age," said Craig Proffen, referee coordinator for the Soccer Association of Columbia.

"When you start a family or a new job, you don't have time for this. I've tried to recruit from the men's and women's leagues, and ... they just don't have the extra time."

Other explanations given for officials quitting included not being paid in a timely matter. Sometimes referees must wait until the end of the season to receive full payment. Proffen also pointed to what he called the "fumes - perfumes and gasoline," as to why some of the young male officials stop.

Proffen said that before each season he has a class of approximately 35 potential new entry-level officials. About 30 of them will officiate at least one game.

By the end of the first season, he said, ordinarily half of those will quit. At the end of a second season, another half of the remainder will quit - leaving just seven referees of the original 35.

"The number that quit is alarmingly high," Proffen said. "They say it's not fun anymore, and they've had enough of people second-guessing them."

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