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Utah Youth Soccer Association adopts zero-tolerance policy toward referee abuse

Child football players and ball on the football field
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The Utah Youth Soccer Association issued a zero-tolerance policy against parents and coaches who berate officials.

Maybe it’s not every game, but it seems like almost every time a youth soccer referee takes the field, they’re going to get yelled at. It could be from a coach or a parent, even a player.

One referee in Weber County, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, recalled just the most recent incident of parents behaving badly. It started when a player on the home team was knocked to the ground. A parent from his team began shouting at parents on the opposing team and things quickly escalated into a verbal brawl.

“It just blew my mind,” she said. “That we’re comfortable doing that in front of a bunch of kids.”

This referee has officiated youth soccer for about 20 years. But she said the verbal abuse she and other referees get from parents and coaches has gotten worse. Referees as young as 13 have also been verbally assaulted, chased to their cars and even prevented from leaving the field by adults.

To fight back, the Utah Youth Soccer Association issued a zero-tolerance policy against parents and coaches who berate officials. It means that anytime people yell or argue with a referee, their team won’t be able to have spectators on the sidelines for the rest of the season.

“The behavior towards referees has to change,” the association wrote. “For the past several years UYSA has restricted the sidelines of many teams to ZERO spectators at games when there have been reports of parents and sidelines making inappropriate remarks, harassment towards referees, or refusal to follow a referee's instructions. However, it seems that hasn’t been enough to curb the growing number of games where referees are being subjected to verbal and sometimes physical abuse.”

The abuse has led to a massive shortage of people willing to referee, a problem that is not unique to youth soccer or Utah. A recent survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations found more than 75% of all high school officials quit due to adult behavior and 80% leave after just two years.

Scot Boyd, the assistant league commissioner for UYSA, said he doesn’t think parents' behavior has necessarily gotten worse — it’s been bad for years. But with more than 500 youth soccer matches played on an average weekend, there are many opportunities for bad behavior.

Youth sports have also become competitive, said referee assignor Dirk Gunderson with the Utah Soccer Federation referee program. More parents are paying to get their kids on expensive, higher-level club teams and the pressure that causes is likely a contributor to the outbursts.

“Everything just seems like it's so much more serious now,” he said. “It's kind of a skewed situation where parents will spend thousands of dollars to keep their kid getting the best coaching and all this stuff playing soccer, hoping that they'll not only have fun and be successful, but they'll get some kind of a college scholarship or possibly professional.”

Whatever is behind the growing contention, Boyd said screaming and yelling never helps and that’s the message UYSA is trying to get across.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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