Morning sunshine blanketed a soccer field in Annandale, Va., the conditions perfect for tension to simmer into a boil. One player lunged forward to seize possession of the ball, sending his opponent tumbling to the turf. Emily Smith, the referee, wasn’t sure whether to call a foul, so she let it go. Play on.
The fallen player’s coach thrust his arms skyward, his face screwed up with anger and incredulity. Spectators hurled insults in English and Spanish. Players began feeding off the mounting outrage, one of them suggesting Emily get glasses to correct her blindness.
Emily trudged away from the under-10 rec game and cried. She was 12 years old. She has been hesitant to accept shifts as a center referee ever since.
“Having an experience like that just kind of got to me,” said Emily, now 14.
Emily’s experience plays out every weekend across the country. Youth sports officials and administrators contend that ever-escalating verbal abuse is largely to blame for a dwindling referee pool that looks less appealing to young people every year. High school sports, with rivalries and crowds further stoking tension, confront a similar problem. The fallout is crippling officiating bodies mired in a deeply cutthroat sports culture, one that often holds amateur referees to a professional standard.
Perhaps no sport suffers from the shortage more than soccer. Player participation numbers rise every year while referee organizations grapple with stagnation or decline, leaving youth leagues in a constant scramble to fill empty officiating slots. The National Capital Soccer League (NCSL), the Washington area’s largest travel league, encounters dozens of referee vacancies each week. In those situations, either a volunteer parent takes the whistle or the game gets canceled.
Kids can start earning money as a soccer official at age 13. According to youth league assignor Jack Kyriakos, young teenagers used to flood the Metropolitan Washington Soccer Referees Association with applications, and for good reason. A center referee makes $61 calling an 80-minute game, meaning ambitious officials can earn around $400 in a weekend. Nice pocket money for an adult, a gleaming fortune for a 13-year-old.
Yet fewer and fewer teens are signing up. Time constraints are among several reasons for that, but one culprit stands above the rest.
“They don’t want the abuse,” Kyriakos said. “I don’t know if I would let my kids do it either.”
Soccer is not alone in its troubles. Mid-Atlantic Officials, one of the D.C. area’s largest referee assigning groups for baseball, is enduring its worst shortage of umpires and referees in over 25 years, according to Commissioner John Porter. Only about half of the umpires that complete one year return for a second year, and the five-to-seven year attrition rate hovers around 80 percent.
And on the gridiron, referee assignor Andre Jones estimated that the Fairfax County Football Officials Association has seen a 40-percent drop in referee total over the last three years. Both administrators pointed to rampant referee abuse as a significant driving force behind the declines.
More broadly, an average of only two of every 10 officials return for their third year of officiating, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Barry Mano, founder and president of the 22,000-member National Association of Sports Officials, does not expect the situation to improve anytime soon. More referee shortages will mean more game cancellations, leaving the future of youth and high school sports with a growing problem.
“Without us going out there and working these games, we’ve got Armageddon,” Mano said.
Chaos on the high school pitch
The soccer game ended, and a pair of incensed players beelined for assistant referee Scott Hartman as he jogged toward his equipment bag. Their coach stormed in seconds later and unloaded his diatribe before being shown a red card by the center referee.
Hartman had ruined his team’s season, he said. He had completely blown the offside call. He was utterly incompetent.
W.T. Woodson’s season ended last month in the opening round of the 6A North region tournament. A few minutes into sudden-death overtime, a long ball was played upfield, and three players stood in offside positions. A fourth player, however, tore through a central gap from an onside position, rounded the goalkeeper and buried the golden goal. Hartman stood directly across from the play on the sideline and maintains total conviction in the decision to keep his flag down.
As Hartman and his two fellow referees packed up their gear, parents and fans lobbed insults at them on their way toward the stadium exit. Some stood menacingly at the end of the fence line, apparently waiting for the refs to come their way.
Woodson’s director of student activities approached the three scapegoats and insisted on escorting them to their cars. He did little to quiet the fans. He even chastised the referees for missing several calls against the visiting team.
“I told him, ‘You’re the exact reason that we’re losing referees,’” Hartman said, “‘and you’re the reason that parents and coaches are out of control.’”
The soccer referee crisis at Northern Virginia high schools does not center on overall numbers. Membership at the Commonwealth Soccer Officials Association (CSOA) has remained relatively stable in recent years, and the state’s overall number of Virginia High School League-certified referees even saw a slight uptick this spring. The perpetual revolving door sees some quit and others join every year.
Just like in the youth ranks, the crisis on high school fields boils down to nasty behavior by coaches and parents. Experienced referees are hanging up their whistles with increasing frequency just as younger referees are growing more and more fed up with verbal abuse that continues to rise. The supply of experienced officials dwindles while the number of high school games and athletes goes up each year.
Unchecked vitriol from coaches and parents exacerbates the problem. One Maryland high school referee recalled having his car blocked in by an angry parent. A Virginia referee stumbled after a player swatted his cap. And last month, an assistant referee returned to his car after a controversial playoff game and found it covered in key marks.
Female referees, meanwhile, encounter sexism nearly every time they step onto the field.
“I’ve had no compunction about tossing a player who’s spat at me or called me a whore,” said veteran referee Thea Bruhn, who noted that adult recreational games are most prone to egregious behavior. “I’ve been called that and worse in at least a dozen languages.”
In response to rising reports of controversy, the CSOA began conducting match inspections at Northern Virginia high schools in mid-April. Of the 42 matches inspected, 85 percent featured loud vocal dissent from fans, of which 20 percent included outright spectator profanity.
And while the incidence of red cards this season has not changed much from last year, the number of cards for foul and abusive language was double. Varsity soccer coaches at the Woodson, for example, accumulated nine yellow card cautions during their 15-game season.
Hartman pointed the finger at school administrators. While some schools are vigilant about maintaining decorum, he said, others neglect holding their coaches accountable for poor behavior.
“It’s a joke,” said Hartman, 27. “They’re more worried about wins and losses.”
Other culprits are numerous. An explosion of travel leagues coincides with overzealous parents who want to see their kids strive for college scholarships. Professional players on television, meanwhile, show kids that feigning injury and berating referees are normal behaviors.
And then there’s the existential view.
“There’s no moral fiber left in our society,” said Northern Virginia Football Officials Association Commissioner Dennis Hall, who dealt with 32 player and coach ejections across all levels of youth football in 2016. “People think because they paid to get into the game they can say and do anything they want, and they think they know the rules better than the officials because they watch television.”
‘I had no idea’
It’s a common practice in youth soccer. When a parent starts getting mouthy with the officials, a team sportsmanship liaison hands the parent a lollipop to shut them up. The NCSL halted that practice three years ago after a parent flung his Tootsie Pop at a referee.
Richard Smith, president of the NCSL for the last five years, brims with similar stories about the tribulations of youth soccer officials. He recalled the time a referee began driving home after a contentious game, only to notice that a caravan of parents from the losing team was following him, presumably to finish off an earlier altercation. The referee drove straight to the police station.
Smith decided to become a certified official four years ago. He wanted to help remedy his organization’s constant scramble to fill referee slots, and he was curious about his league’s avalanche of negative game reports. Was referee abuse really this pervasive?
The answer was yes. No matter what level he officiated, Smith saw nearly every element of his character — his judgement, his honesty, his vision, his integrity — called into question almost every time he took the pitch.
“It’s stunning,” Smith said. “It’s really stunning.”
Simon Harrington made a similar move. His 10-year-old daughter’s Fairfax Police Youth Club team needed a volunteer referee three years ago, so Harrington decided to sign up.
Harrington called the level of sideline dissent “disgusting” and said he’s on the brink of quitting. Still, he began officiating high school games this spring. The VHSL took measures to combat coaching misbehavior this year — coaches are now required to stay within a designated technical area on the bench and face a two-game suspension for abusive language toward a referee — so maybe the high school scene would prove refreshing?
Not a chance.
“I had no idea. I thought you’d get a complaint every once in awhile or just a whiny parent or kid here and there,” said Harrington, who grew up playing rugby in England. “I didn’t know it would be everybody all the time.”
Confronting a disconnect
Some officials posit a simple solution to the abuse. The attitudes of players and parents are often a reflection of their coach’s demeanor, so why not just crack down on the coaches displaying bad behavior?
One referee, however, lamented that officiating organizations emphasize tolerance and allow coaches to dictate which referees work certain games. The referee, who wished to remain anonymous, showed one high school coach a red card this season despite knowing it could affect him down the line.
“That will likely limit my ability to get an assignment in the state [tournament] because coaches retain some power over who gets their games,” said the referee, who said he was once kicked in the testicles while officiating a Maryland International Soccer League game.
Some coaches, meanwhile, point to a growing disconnect with referees that takes root in a flawed feedback system. Game assessments, for example, are not mandatory for high school coaches in Northern Virginia. There is a match feedback form available to coaches on the CSOA’s website, but only about 20 of the 1,500-plus matches this season were reviewed by coaches in that manner.
Other coaches respect their counterparts’ dedication. Referees often leave their day jobs early to travel to far-flung games and get home around 10:30 p.m. Center referees earn about $66 per varsity game, while linesmen take in $47.
Annandale United FC technical director Bo Amato, for his part, spends more time yelling at his teams’ parents than at the referees.
“If I was a referee, most games would end because there’d be a shortage of players on the field,” said Amato, who also coaches the varsity team at Langley High. “I would send them all off.”
A former referee who wished to remain anonymous thought back to what prompted him to quit. It was a freezing night in Northern Virginia two years ago, and parents were eviscerating him for calling a penalty kick in a 1–0 high school game.
At some point, it dawned on him. He was cold; he was wet; his family was waiting for him at home. Why was he here on this frigid turf field, enduring this relentless torrent of callous barbs?
“There’s zero regard for the fact that I’m making a sacrifice to be here,” he thought, “and I’m being sacrificed.”