May 17, 2013
The Death of a Referee: Make it an Hour of Silence

By Mike Woitalla (from Soccer America's Youth Soccer Insider)

"The yells and insults from the sideline from the parents make kids more violent.”

-- Utah referee Pedro Lopez, the brother-in-law of 46-year-old referee Ricardo Portillo, who died last week after being punched by a 17-year-old goalkeeper.

In addition to working as an editor of Soccer America my whole adult life, I have been a player, fan, referee, youth coach and soccer dad. I love the sport. I even like the smell of my daughter’s shinguards, which my wife wants left on the porch. (Apparently I suffer from Proustian Phenomenon).

During the last decade I’ve grown even fonder of soccer because I’ve been involved in the youth game. Watching youngsters explore the joys of the sport is simply delightful and makes one appreciate soccer even more when watching it played brilliantly at the highest levels.

But there’s something about soccer -- all sports, in fact -- that I loathe. And it’s that, for some reason, it brings out behavior in adults that would not be tolerated in any other setting.

At the professional level, coaches wearing suits on the sideline throw tantrums that would embarrass a toddler’s parents. Adult fans sitting next to children in a stadium yell obscenities at the top of their lungs. (Just one example that really bothered me recently: In Azteca Stadium in March -- you probably heard this yourself if you watched it on TV – tens of thousands of fans chanting a horribly offensive slur at Brad Guzan each time he took a goal kick.)

But worst of all are the adults screaming from the sidelines at youth games. Whether it’s the coaches or the parents -- what on earth makes otherwise civilized people believe that it’s acceptable to invade children’s playtime in such a way?

One can’t imagine an adult screaming at children on a playground but this is tolerated when they’re playing soccer. If you think your kid unfairly got a bad grade, you might discuss it with the teacher -- but come into the classroom screaming and you may just get arrested. Yet usually well-mannered adults go raving mad at referees in front of children.

I watch many, many games, from youngsters in the park to the very top level with the world’s best referees. And I have discovered that the frequency at which referees make incorrect or questionable calls averages out about the same per game at every level. Why in the world would you expect a referee -- very often a teenager -- at the youth level to whistle a perfect game when the refs of the EPL, the World Cup, MLS, etc., can’t pull it off?

Besides, criticism from the parents and coaches is usually so biased, plus they’re generally not in a good spot to see the incident, that it’s very often wrong.

Our league, NorCal, has quite rightly called for a minute of silence before all the games this weekend.

I say, for the adults, let’s stay silent the entire game, every weekend. Sit back, relax, and relish the sights and sounds of children playing a wonderful sport. You'll find it's more enjoyable for everyone when there's no screaming.

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United/Bay Oaks in Oakland, Calif. He is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)