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Keeping Our Sidelines Safe Requires Safety Measures

On January 12, 2020, at the Albion Development Showcase tournament in Temecula, California, two BU11 teams (Albion SC and InterAmerica [Azteca]) were in the finals of their bracket.  The game was reportedly heatedly with a few yellow cards being handed out (including allegedly at least one to a coach).  At one point it has been reported there was some scuffling on the field between the players, and then a teenaged sibling of one of the players ran onto the field and allegedly assailed a player.  From there, the situation escalated into a brawl between parents, and it has been claimed that at some point one of the adults was threatening to use a firearm supposedly hidden in a backpack.  The situation caused a mass flight of players and spectators from the field and surrounding fields, with many children separated from the adults and worried that there was an active shooter situation in progress.  While no gun has been found at the scene, there have been many reports of children who have been emotionally traumatized by the incident after being forced to flee unescorted into parking lots and over chain-linked fences.

Unfortunately, this is the state of youth soccer in the United States.  What will it take for us to recognize that our sidelines are out of control?  Fortunately, no one was shot, but one can imagine if the situation continues unchecked, next time we might not be as fortunate. 

CalSouth, the governing body for soccer in southern California, to its credit, has announced some interim steps.  Most immediately, CalSouth suspended the teams, coaches, players, administrators, and spectators involved in the incident pending a CalSouth investigation.   The suspension includes a suspension from participation in the State Cup and in CalSouth affiliated events such as tournaments.  CalSouth upon completion of its investigation will adjudicate final consequences, but has threatened further suspension and deregistration if the teams fail to cooperate.

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Given that State Cup is underway, CalSouth announced several other interim steps including: enhanced security at State and National Cup events, an increased presence of CalSouth personnel at such events, and spot auditing of conformity to CalSouth safety and sportsmanship policies, requiring coaches and referees before games to conduct an informal meet and greet, and separating spectators into different “home” and “away” sidelines.

CalSouth, to its credit, has taken these interim fixes, which are obvious and long overdue.  But they’ve also announced that they’ll be looking at the issue long term.  Additionally, the US Soccer Development Task Force, Referee Subcommittee, has been looking at the issue of sideline behavior and is due to issue recommendations, hopefully taking into account what happened at Albion.

I’ve worn many hats during my son’s soccer career.  As a referee, I’ve been yelled at by coaches and parents on the sideline.  There was one incident even during League Cup when I was yelled at and mocked by a coach when I had volunteered (without pay) to assist as an AR when their referee did not show up.  As a parent, I’ve witnessed referees who might be incompetent, don’t care enough to protect the players, or who believe that the call of fouls, even violent non-shoulder to shoulder fouls, should be minimized because we should “let ‘em play”.  I’ve witnessed my goalkeeper son lying on the ground after a save being kicked several times and a referee did nothing to intervene, during a game filled with many uncalled aggressive pushing fouls.  And as a coach and goalkeeper coach, I’ve seen first-hand the crazy win-obsessed parents, the idiotic calls by some referees, and the difficulty of the politics that come with trying to manage those parents.  Don’t get me wrong.  I think the majority of referees, parents and coaches at least try to do a good job.  But the various hats I’ve worn have convinced me that we have a multifaceted problem where several pillars contribute to the sideline mess, and no one can really escape blame.

I’m not saying that the crazy sidelines directly caused the incident at the Albion Development Showcase.  That responsibility lies with individuals who chose to behave poorly in the moment.  But I do believe the sideline situation has made incidents like Albion more likely and has created the explosive environment that made the incident possible.  So, to that end, here are some steps that I believe US Soccer and/or CalSouth should take immediately:

  1. There should be a zero tolerance policy for mouthing off by coaches.  Parents often take their cue from the coaches on the team, and if the coaches are abusive, you can virtually guarantee that the parents will follow the example.  If a coach is issued a certain number of yellow cards, or a red card, during the season for their conduct, a substantial suspension should be put in place before they are allowed to coach again, and mandatory retraining should be required. 
  2. Referees are required to take yearly training to keep up with the rules.  Much like attorneys, teachers, doctors, and accountants, coaches should be required to take yearly continuing education, focusing on sideline management, concussion training, and an additional topic.
  3. Similarly, we now make parents take online concussion training to allow their children to play.  There should be an express code of conduct for parents on the sidelines and parents should be required to take education yearly on that code of conduct. 
  4. The code of conduct should require clubs to suspend parents for a length of time if they are ejected from the field, with a period of a year or longer for fighting, and a life time ban for bringing a weapon onto the field.
  5. Referees are sometimes reluctant to issue cards, particularly red cards, because the soccer community is small, they can become afraid of reprisals or fear the use of a card might escalate the situation, and at the younger levels the issuance of yellow cards in some leagues is even expressly discouraged.  That needs to change, and referees need to be instructed in proper card use and backed up when they issue those cards.  Sure, there should be an appeals process in the event it is found a referee is being tyrannical or has a personal grudge.  But the cards are in the game for a reason, and are an important tool for game management.
  6. Referees need to be told to call the fouls, especially the violent ones, and not apply the “trifling” standard.  Some of the most explosive remarks from the sidelines come not because a referee blew an offside call (yes, that happens too), but because parents fear their children aren’t being protected by the referees.  I’m not saying this is what happened at Albion, but the lack of trust between parents and referees is one of the contributing factors in sideline conduct.
  7. Tournaments needs to be staffed with field marshals present on the fields, with a direct line of communication to tournament headquarters and law enforcement, if necessary.  Field marshals should be empowered to report sidelines that are getting out of control to tournament directors so appropriate security measures can be taken.
  8. And it’s an unfortunate reality of our day and age, but tournaments need to take into consideration how they will handle such incidents, including evacuations if necessary, and need to train staff in what to do in the event of an emergency.

The incident at the Albion Development Showcase should serve as a wake up call to all of us, and spur the applicable authorities into immediate action.  More so, because it’s been followed by an incident on February 2, 2020 in Cape Coral, Florida, where at a U14 match the sidelines allegedly started yelling at each other and two parents got into a brawl after a referee instructed one of the players to remove her earrings after a game had started.

When are we going to say that enough is enough?  If the situation on our sidelines continues unchecked, it’s only a matter of time before something very serious happens, and this time officials won’t be able to claim they didn’t know it could happen.

  • I agree with the author as a mom of a defender in soccer and present to that incident. But also think that referees must be sent back to school – most of them dont even know the rules!

    • Wow you were there? Thanks for the note.

      Club level referees in most states are required to do yearly continuing education. The reason there’s a lot of “bad” referees is: 1) it takes a long time to get real experienced and really good at it and you take a lot of abuse along the way so few stick it out, 2) in many areas there aren’t enough ARs and its impossible for CRs to see everything (I just did my first without ARs and it’s pretty much impossible to see everything, especially if you are over 30 and can’t keep up with the youngins), 3) some aren’t physically fit enough but they continue to be allowed to ref because there’s a shortage, 4) some aren’t mentally fit enough (to actually have the strength to make the tough calls therefore they just go uncalled) but they continue to be allowed to ref because there’s a shortage, 5) some believe in the “let em play” school of refereeing and so pretty much will rule almost all violations of the laws as “trifling” in an effort to protect the game and keep it flowing, and 6) some are in just for the buck and don’t care but again….shortage.

      I don’t really see a solution to the referee competency problem (other than to tell the “let em players” to call the fouls) except for paying the referees more. But if we do that, the game becomes even more inaccessible for working class players.

      • You’re comments are spot-on.
        The sport suffers from over-popularity and there are simply not enough referees to go around.
        Youth leagues are forced to use sub-par refs, but that’s not surprising because referee work is hard and it takes a long time to master.

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    Yesenia Torpoco

    Yesenia Torpoco is the proud soccer mom of a goalkeeper, and AYSO and club soccer referee.