Last week, the South Carolina Youth Soccer Association announced its upcoming “Silent September.” For “all SCYSA sponsored league games, statewide, at all levels,” during that month, there is to be no noise. No cheering, no jeering, simply watching. The organization has put in place a three strike rule by which the ref will ask, then tell the coach to remind spectators they are to be silent, then tell the coach to eject the offender. If the offender doesn’t leave, or the coach refuses, the coach will be ejected. If there is no one to replace the coach, the game ends. Parents are expected to sign agreement to this code of conduct before the season begins.
I am not sure if I am more astounded by this policy or the fact that parents behaved so badly that the organization felt it had no other choice. Let’s be clear here. The players in question are in grades 4 to 12. Like most youth sports leagues, many member clubs are instructional in nature. Anyone can be on a team and teams are often randomly populated and coached by volunteers with vastly different skills sets and experience.
To become a referee with SC Youth Soccer, one must pass a background check, register, take and pay for a class, and take a test each year. Refs are also expected to purchase uniforms and any necessary equipment. When the game is over, the ref is responsible for reporting game results and any relevant concerns. Yes, the position is paid, but not enough to subject oneself to regular abuse.
As a parent of four, I have been a soccer parent, a baseball/softball parent, and a basketball parent. I have spent many years on the sidelines, in all seasons, and have seen my share of bad behavior. I have seen the dad berating his son for not catching a pop fly, the mom screaming at the ref that her child was not offsides, the group of parents grumbling when a tough call didn’t go their way. I have even been the parent who, while coaching first base, quietly affirmed the nearby parents’ contention that the runner was safe at second (and was rightfully threatened with being ejected if I made further comments).
I have also been the parent of the first time pitcher, gripping the bleachers until my hands hurt, knowing what the spectator reaction would be if she made a mistake. I have been the parent of the ump who made a determination on a close call that even I didn’t agree with and the sideline soccer ref who erred and let the ball go to the wrong team.
Though my teens made occasional mistakes, both in playing and in officiating, they did their best. However, that didn’t prevent the “adults” from challenging them. Too often, I was in the uncomfortable position of seeing other parents screaming at my children when they had agreed to take on an important leadership role. Uncomfortable, because to defend them, I would undermine their authority. As the game officials, they were in charge. It didn’t matter that the challenge came from their elders. They were in charge of making sure the game was played in a fair and safe manner and keeping it moving or stopping play when appropriate
From the time they starting playing sports, my kids were taught that “The ref is always right.” They recognize the calls might sometimes be flawed, but the ref is in charge of the game. Barring nefarious intentions, errors almost always balance out. Like most athletes, they saw this balancing act work out on the playing field. Unlike moms, referees and umpires don’t have eyes behind their head. They are forced to make judgement calls and they do their best to be fair.
The same day this announcement came out of South Carolina, I read a Washington Post article blaming these Bad Parent Spectators for the shortage of referees in youth sports. The story quotes several adult refs who made the decision that it simply wasn’t worth it anymore, that it was even potentially dangerous. While soccer reportedly has the most difficulty finding and keeping refs, Mid-Atlantic Officials in D.C. reports that only about half of umpires come back after their first year and Fairfax County Football Officials Association has had a 40 percent drop in the past three years. The National Federation of State High School Associations reports only two out of ten officials return for a third year.
Of course there is tremendous value in youth sports. Besides the regular physical activity, playing on a sports team teaches valuable interpersonal skills and is a way to meet new people. What some forget is these kids are playing a game. Yes, some will go on to play professionally and will have profitable careers. But for most, it is a way to have fun, get some exercise and burn off some energy. And the refs, they are doing their best.
Having spent more than a decade on the sidelines each fall, I am not sure how Silent September will play out. In my town, soccer games are social events where parents are chatty and struggle to contain their excitement, even when the game goes their way. While it would be nice to watch a game with no criticism of the players or the ref, this policy will likely be tough to enforce and a bit of a burden on the coaches. On the other hand, speaking as a former coach, it might be nice to have an external force to try to tame the tempers of some parents.
It is sad to think parents need to be reminded of basic truths, that a “Code of Conduct” is necessary to have, never mind sign. How did we get to the point where parents need reminders: to set an example for their children, to show respect, to applaud all good plays, to be gracious in victory, to applaud effort, and to remember that children participate in sports for their own enjoyment?
The Silent September proposal starts with the words “Just let them play!” Let’s take a moment to stop and think about what our kids want out of this. When your child asks to participate in a sport, is it because he or she wants to win games, attract scouts, get into a Big 10 school and then go pro? Probably not. Most kids just want to play. They want to go spend time with friends and kick/hit/throw/bounce a ball in some friendly competition. Does the score count? Somewhat. Bragging rights have value. Youth sports are about learning and practicing skills, working as a team toward a greater good, and how to be a good sport, win or lose. As parents we rightfully take pride in our children’s successes and feel some of the pain of their failures. But roughing the ref? That’s just not cool.