US referee numbers are plunging and aggression is to blame
“My three-year-old could’ve made that call!” exclaimed commentator Kaylyn Kyle after an apparent handball wasn’t called at the end of an NWSL Challenge Cup game between OL Reign and the Washington Spirit.
Unfortunately, most three-year-olds who grow up to be soccer fans will be armchair referees rather than being on the field where they’re actually needed.
They’ll grow up to spend their hours on Twitter, dissecting photos and videos often taken from sightlines the actual referee and assistant referees do not have. They will also have far more time to process plays than the officials. And too many of them will grow up to become parents and coaches who prowl sidelines yelling at referees until those officials finally toss aside their whistles and quit.
We all want better referees. But it’s tough for referees to develop when there’s much more incentive for them to quit than there is for them to stick with it and improve.
It’s a simple spiral. Referees drop out of the sport, especially after discovering the joys of extra free-time during the pandemic. Less experienced referees fill their spots. Coaches, players and parents harass and abuse the less experienced referees. Then those referees quit. And then the pool of referees drifting upwards to the top level is that much smaller.
The story is familiar to players in England, where some semi-professional games are going forward with teenagers and some games below that level have no officials at all. In the US, the shortages are rampant at youth level and can even reach up to MLS Next, Major League Soccer’s academy program, for which some grassroots referees in Virginia have seen urgent calls for help.
In Utah, the state youth association had reached the point of canceling 570 matches and rescheduling more than 1,000 in one season. They sent out an email trying to drum up interest in referee certification. The response was telling.
“We were flooded with responses stating they would never register as referees or allow their children to register because they’ve seen how horrible the treatment of referees has been, and they refuse to be subjected to it,” said Jen Rader, the Utah association’s marketing and media manager.
The response: A ”zero tolerance” policy on complaining to referees. The name is more draconian than the actual policy, which recognizes the reality of heated competition.
“Exclamations in the moment are part of the game,” the policy states. “A ‘handball’ or ‘offside’ as an immediate response to a situation is more than acceptable so long as that exclamation ends there.”
Coaches and players can still speak respectfully with refs. And if things are unresolved, there’s a complaint procedure that takes place electronically, not with a barracuda parent going after a terrified teenager.
To an extent, referee shortages aren’t new. Wisconsin’s youth association instituted its own zero tolerance policy in 2015, citing a “persistent shortage of referees.” The most recognizable referee in recent history, the imposing Pierluigi Collina, warned in 2017 that soccer may face a global shortage of referees. The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), which oversees all US scholastic sports, launched a recruitment drive in 2017.
But the pandemic has worsened the situation. The US is dealing with labor shortages in many fields, all part of what has been called the Great Resignation, and refereeing is no exception. Spending weekends somewhere other than a soccer field has proven alluring for some, especially when players apparently have pent-up frustration to unleash.
“Since the pandemic, I have seen more heated parents, coaches and players than usual,” said Janet Campbell, who chairs referee abuse and assault hearings for North Texas Soccer. “They need to settle down and let the children play the game and let the referees do their jobs. They don’t seem to understand that you have to have referees to play the game.”
And the NFHS, five years after launching that recruitment drive, has had to redouble its efforts after seeing referee numbers drop from about 240,000 to 200,000 in three years.
Wisconsin is now offering financial incentives – paying for certification and uniforms for new refs, then raising game fees paid to referees in fall 2022 – in addition to beefing up its zero tolerance enforcement.
“Zero tolerance policies continue to be enforced and we are also taking steps to be more transparent back to referees and referee leadership of suspensions and sanctions that have been assessed to show the association is working to curb behavioral issues,” said Brandon Wachholz, Wisconsin’s youth referee administrator.
Another factor feeding the frenzy on the sidelines – the US now has no shortage of games on television, which means parents and players witness (and are perhaps tempted to emulate) pundits and the professionals dissenting referees’ decisions.
And to be sure, sometimes the critics have a point. Though Kyle’s rant of nearly three minutes over what was, at worst, a simple mistake was over the top, NWSL fans can’t be faulted for complaining about a few institutional issues. Namely:
The Professional Referee Organization (PRO) assigns NWSL games to Tier B and Tier C referees in their development ladder, multiple tiers below MLS.
The league lacks VAR, which might have shed some light on the incident Kyle decried as well as a horror tackle, committed by Washington’s Sam Staab, of which the referee didn’t have a clear view – screened, as is so often the case even with top-notch referees, by the defender trailing back to catch the attacker.
Refs assigned to the league also have a curious aversion to red cards – in 2018, Carli Lloyd and Marta were the only players to be sent off.
Kyle also happened to be on the field for one of the most controversial games in recent international play – a 2012 Olympic semi-final in which her Canadian team suffered two dubious calls in quick succession that allowed the US to get back into the game and eventually march on to the final. That game still elicits strong feelings in Canada. It was also the last major international game officiated by Norway’s Christina Pedersen, who was just 31 at the time. By the letter of the law, she didn’t even make mistakes – she simply made decisions that aren’t usually made. Fifa and Uefa aren’t prone to announcing that a referee has been removed from the public arena, but whether her disappearance was their decision or Pedersen’s, those two calls were clearly pivotal.
Pedersen’s exit from the international stage also proves that referees are held accountable – in many ways, more than players or coaches are. One bad game or even a couple of simple mistakes can sink a referee’s career. Players can fill blooper reels and still get called up to national teams. Players, coaches and even commentators can look at a play multiple times and still misunderstand the call. Case in point: On a 2010 World Cup broadcast, Efan Ekoku ranted about what he considered an erroneous offside call, either failing to notice that the attacker was well past the goalkeeper or failing to realize the rules say “second-to-last opponent,” not “last outfield player.”
And there’s no shortage of commentators. Ex-players happily line up to take a microphone, not a whistle. We’ll never hear of a broadcast in which the broadcaster simply couldn’t find anyone willing to take the gig.
But if the referee pool keeps dwindling, plenty of games will go forward without a full officiating crew. Maybe Kyle’s three-year-old should go ahead and sign up now.