You Can Watch the Rest of the Game from the Parking Lot!

This past weekend, I got out and refereed a 10-year old soccer game. As a referee instructor, I train hundreds of referees every year of all ages. Being as busy as I am, I do not get out to referee as much as I would like to. It was a real treat to be out there with these 10-year olds this weekend on a beautiful crisp morning. I was amazed at the great sportsmanship by both clubs from the players, coaches, and spectators. Everyone was supportive of each other and I did not get one single complaint about my officiating all game.

Rewind about 26 years ago and it was a completely different story for me.

At the age of 14, I began refereeing soccer games. Unlike most kids that referee, I did not do it for the money. Rather I did it because it was my one and only chance to be the boss in life. Not only that, but for whatever reason I loved to be the judge in matters of controversy. I figured what better chance to do both of those than become a soccer referee.

Being in charge of adult coaches, who often times yell at teenage referees, and also taking verbal abuse from parent spectators is something that prevents many young soccer players from ever wanting to become a referee. This of course did not scare me one bit as I loved controversy and loved even more to be the deciding voice. Give me a whistle and a red card and I have all that I need!

The one motivating factor for many youth referees is of course the fact that you can make triple the minimum wage refereeing soccer games, there are plenty of games to referee any weekend, and thus it is reliable work that pays well. For me, this was also a nice perk in that I could do something that I enjoyed, be outdoors, and argue that it was work. As a United States Soccer Federation referee assignor and instructor, I have written numerous letters of recommendation for young referees that prove their responsibility, courage, intelligence, and communication skills.

So as a high school freshman, I woke one fall morning, put on my black t-shirt that said “REFEREE” on the back, and walked over to the fields located about one block from our house. Games were played at the middle school that I attended the year before. It was my very first time refereeing and I was scheduled to referee 3, 10-year old boys soccer games. It did not matter to me that these games were recreation games or 10-year old’s playing as I imagined that I was refereeing world cup soccer. I truly was in my happy place on a soccer field as a referee.

When I arrived to the field, I looked around for my partner who was someone that I did not know. Usually referees meet each other around the middle of the field about 15 minutes before kickoff. The game was scheduled to start at 10:30 and it was 10:25! I called the teams over for the coin toss thinking that my partner would get there at some point. After the toss it became crystal clear to me that I was going to be refereeing these three games by myself as my partner referee was not there. As crazy as this sounds, this made me even more excited as now I was the one solely in charge of these games. I was about to experience something that I had never experienced in my life! I was boss and in charge of all crucial decisions. It gave me a feeling of power!

To make a long story short, the first two games took off with no problems at all. The games were mostly boring with not much happening other than a few handballs to call here and there. After both games were done, the coaches shook my hand and told me that I did a great job. I thought to my self: “wow this is an easy way to make some money, get fresh air, and be in charge”. It appears that I was in for an easy day of refereeing.

Little did I know that the third game would truly be a scare and life changing experience. The “orange team” had a coach that was very intimidating and abusive towards me. 26 years later and I still recall what the man looked like. He was about 250 pounds, line backer type build, long shaggy hair with a beard, and was wearing an orange t-shirt. Unlike the other two games that day, this game was getting physical and the score was very close. I was making calls to the best of my ability for both teams. I was also doing quite a bit more running than the other games as the ball was going up and down the field. Being the third game, my legs were actually starting to get a little tired. The crowd was into the game and there was lots of screaming and yelling. That said, I was honestly having the time of my life. I thought: “This is great, fun, and exciting”.

The orange teams coach was complaining to me the entire game with typical comments such as “COME ON, CALL IT”, “CALL IT BOTH WAYS”, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME”, “WHAT GAME ARE YOU WATCHING”, “TERRIBLE CALL”, “YOUR LOSING CONTROL OF THE GAME”, etc. I didn’t let any of this bother me and pretty much ignored him. I simply remained focused on the match, called what I thought needed to be called, blew the whistle loud, ran nonstop, and signaled with confidence.

As each minute went by, the game got more intense. The fouls started to happen more frequently and they also became harder. Parents from the orange team were now yelling at me and verbally abusing me. I was called every name in the book from idiot to blind by the orange team parents and now the blue team spectators were also getting in on the verbal abuse directed toward a myself, a 14 year old teenager.

Then it happened…

With about 5 minutes to play, the skilled blue player had the ball and was dribbling it towards the orange teams goal. He got about 20 yards from the goal and bumped shoulders with an orange defender who went to the ground hard. In soccer, shoulder to shoulder contact that happens naturally is typically considered fair and not a foul. My 14-year old brain saw a fair shoulder to shoulder challenge and I yelled “play on”. Then the blue player kicked the ball in the goal. The score was now 3–2 in favor of the blue team with 5 minutes to play.

The orange coach and spectators all apparently thought it was not a fair shoulder to shoulder charge and were screaming at me for a foul. “YOU ARE THE WORST REFEREE I HAVE EVER SEEN”, the orange coach screamed at me. At that point, my emotions had enough and I began to cry. Tears sobbed down my cheeks as I walked up the field for the proceeding kick off. To this day, I do not believe that I was scared, but rather upset that all of my efforts being ridiculed by all of these people.

“YOU KNOW YOU MADE THE WRONG CALL”, yelled the orange coach. That comment hit a nerve with me and my tears of sadness instantly turned into anger. I grabbed the red card given to me by the recreation department, that was made by taking a square of red construction paper and laminating over it, that was in my pocket. As I walked toward the orange coach with the card in my hand, I could feel my legs shaking and my heart pounding. The typical “flight or fight” response that I teach my health students was happening and my body was preparing for a fight. I was about to do something that very few 14-year old teenagers ever get to experience and that was fire an adult. As a 14 year old, I was ready to make this my defining moment.

At the age of 14, I angrily looked at this grown man in the face, lifted my red card over my shoulder, gave my plastic whistle three loud blows, and yelled “YOU CAN WATCH THE REST OF THE GAME FROM THE PARKING LOT”. I then heard a spectator from the side line say “THIS IS BULL $%$%”. I sprinted over to him, blew my whistle loudly, and told him to leave the field as well pointing to the parking lot. Then a mother sitting next to him actually threw a cigarette bud at me a few seconds later and I pointed to the parking lot telling her to leave as well.

Now I had a major problem as these people were not leaving and there was about thirty of them and only one of me. The orange coach made a motion towards me and got chest to chest with me making light physical contact with me. Just when I thought that I was going to be seriously physically assaulted, I saw the pastor from my church sprint towards us. He got between me and this angry coach and yelled “BACK OFF, IT’S U10”. Apparently my pastor’s son played on the blue team and I never saw him during the game. As the orange coach walked away, my pastor looked at me and suggested that I end the game. I did just that, grabbed my gear bag and walked home crying.

That day I worried that my parents would find out what had happened. My honest worry was that my mom would not let me referee again when she found out. That incident would be enough to prevent most teens from ever stepping on a field again, but not me. I was not phased one bit and looked forward to the next opportunity.

I knew we would be going to church the next day and that pastor possibly would say something to me about the incident. This concerned me as I just wanted it to be over and the next weekend of games to be here. As church ended, I suggested to my parents that we skip the traditional pastor hand shake and head out the door to go out for breakfast. “Dad, I am really hungry can we just get out of here”, I asked my dad. He stated: “it is common courtesy to shake pastors hand before we leave church and we are going to do that. Your stomach will have to wait”. Then we got in the line for the traditional handshake with pastor after the service. When I approached pastor he asked: “You sure got abused yesterday reffing, are you ok?” My dad then inquired more about it and pastor told him exactly what happened.

My dad stated that he was going to call the gentlemen in charge of the soccer league whom was a client of his. On the way to the restaurant, I pleaded with my dad not to say anything as I did not want to make a big deal of it. My dad would have none of it and he wanted that coach and those spectators to pay a price for what they had done to me.

After my dad talked to the league president, the league interviewed me and also got the police department involved for the cigarette bud incident and the chest to chest contact by the coach. The league wrote up a report and it went to the head of the recreation department.

After all was said and done, the league suspended that coach for the rest of the season, the orange team had to have a recreation district employee coach them the rest of the season, and they were not allowed to have spectators on the sideline for the remainder of the season. The police department ultimately decided that there was not enough evidence to press any criminal charges.

Fast forward to today and I have refereed over 3,000 soccer matches and have disqualified (red carded) about 25 coaches for verbal abuse directed at a game official. When I train referees, I instruct referees to use the ASK-TELL-DISMISS principle. Basically this means that you ask the coach nicely to behave, then you tell them they must behave or else, and lastly you dismiss them from the match.

As a referee instructor and assignor, I am an advocate for treating sports officials with respect and especially young referees. Soccer in particular has a shortage of referees. The kids see how their referees are treated during games and consequently most of them want nothing to do with officiating. To this day, I am grateful that my pastor stepped in to protect me that day. While at fields observing referees, I have had to “step in the middle” between coaches and teenage referees multiple times. It is something I feel that I should do as the favor was done for me by my pastor.

I know that soccer is an emotional game and everyone wants to see their kids succeed, but we have to remember that at the end of the day its only a game. You would not verbally assault an employee at a restaurant if they messed up on your order so why is it considered acceptable to verbally abuse a sports official that in your opinion made a mistake?

Throughout my referee career, I have been complimented, thanked, and appreciated the vast majority of the time. That said, I have had some ugly moments as well and it does put ware and tare on your mental health.

Let’s thank officials and bring them up. Without referees there would be no game. The game of soccer today is in SERIOUS jeopardy due to the lack of referees. The first thing that we can do to improve that is make the referee job appealing to more people.

Enjoy soccer!!

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Educator, 5 x author, speaker, endurance athlete, education researcher, math/wellness expert.

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Benjamin T. Mueller, Ed.D

Benjamin T. Mueller, Ed.D

Educator, 5 x author, speaker, endurance athlete, education researcher, math/wellness expert.

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