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The deranged joys of being a youth sports referee
It's springtime. The flowers are blooming, and the youth soccer parents have been waiting all winter to verbally abuse me. I can't wait.
Most weekends during the summer and fall of 2022, I woke up around 6 a.m. and made the hour-and-a-half drive Akron, where I stood in the heat and received poverty wages and, often as not, torrents of verbal abuse. Once, someone was so unhappy with my work that they tried (successfully) to intimidate me by following me to my car at the end of my shift. Another time, police officers had to break up a fight between two of my charges.
You guessed it: I was a youth soccer referee.
It’s often said that being a grassroots referee is thankless work. I’m not sure that covers it. Thankless work is driving a garbage truck, bagging groceries, or washing dishes. Being a referee is like doing any of those jobs while also being ruthlessly heckled. And instead of the heckling being swiftly met with social opprobrium, for some reason yelling at referees is a protected class of verbal use that enjoys broad societal acceptance.
If anything, the burden is on the recipient to prove that they’re tough enough to handle it.
Youth sporting events (and the noxious parents who attend them) are notorious, but youth games are actually my favorite games to do. Because refs are in such short supply, many teams are usually just so happy that someone — anyone at all — has showed up to officiate their game. Often, one kid will spot me as I’m walking up and gleefully announce, “The ref is here!” whereupon word of my arrival passes throughout the team like the the people of Middle-Earth lighting the beacons of Gondor.
In this triumphant moment, the children understand that my presence has spared them from the greatest ignominy a teenage soccer player can imagine: playing in a game refereed by their parents.
Of course, when I’m picturing these more pleasant scenarios, what I see in my mind are girls games, not boys. Pre-pubescent boys are fine, but it has been my observation that the moment a single drop of testosterone hits the male soccer player’s bloodstream, they become irredeemable shitheads. (I say this as the father of an irredeemable shithead-in-waiting.) It doesn’t help that their coaches are often modeling appalling behavior, including, for example, leading their U12 players in chants of “ref you suck!” after a game in which the coach had already been sent off for illegally entering the field of play to argue a call.
But girls are different! Sometimes, girls are so deferential to authority that their deference slows the pace of the game to a crawl. The ball goes out of bounds, and instead of running to get the ball and quickly throw it in, they first turn and look to me for a signal, only moving toward the ball once they’ve been assured that it does, in fact, belong to them. When I give my signal, there’s rarely any argument, even when I’ve gotten the call extremely wrong.
Adolescent male aggression notwithstanding, youth games kick ass. You get to do fun things like explain to eight-year-olds how coin tosses work and see 10-year-olds learn to keep their back foot on the ground after you’ve given them a chance to re-take a throw-in. You get to watch a young chemo patient score a goal and get dog-piled by their teammates.
And sometimes the fields are really small and you don’t have to do much running, if any.
Sure, I experience some annoying parents. But idiot dads who like to yell things despite not knowing the rules are pretty easy to tune out. It’s the adult rec leagues that are truly harrowing. These are the games featuring 42-year-olds with 401(k)s, mortgages, and fully formed cerebral cortexes.
These are the real psychos.
Adult rec leaguers will go through all the trouble of setting an intricate offside trap, and then get blindingly furious when the center ref — who is usually working without linesman and definitely without VAR — misses that the goal scorer was offside by half a foot.
The most worrying thing that can happen during pre-game check-ins before an adult game is for the players to assure me that they’re great friends with the other team.
“Watch out for this guy,” one of them will joke as an opposing player passes by. “He’s trouble.”
They clasp hands and do a half-hug.
At this point, it is a mathematical certainty that one of these two players will be ejected for spitting on the other. The only question is which will spit first and whether the other one will retaliate.
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When people asked me why I was getting certified to referee soccer games, I told them my motives were purely practical: my then-four-year-old’s league needed refs, and this would be a way I could help out. This was not a lie exactly; my son’s league really did need refs. It still does need refs. It probably always will.
But uttering that half-truth was easier than explaining the thing that was slightly more true: I was attracted to the idea of being, at the age of 35, a complete novice at a new trade. I was excited about being absolutely terrible at something and then getting incrementally better with each iteration.
There’s something unique about the finitude of a soccer match makes the learning process more fun. One match ends, and then you start a new match, with a fresh opportunity to eliminate the mistakes you made earlier. Even better, it’s usually brand new players, brand new coaches, and brand new spectators. No one but you knows how much you sucked during the last game. Each opening kickoff is a blank slate.
I was not expecting the mental state required to referee would, for me at least, feel almost meditative. Refereeing makes demands on your attention that sometimes feel impossible. Your focus must be sharp, but not so sharp that you miss things happening in your periphery. Your focus must be soft, but not so soft that you miss fine details.
Sometimes you have the help of an assistant referee or two, but usually at the youth level it’s a one-person crew. There’s something both terrifying and thrilling about knowing that everyone’s counting on you to make the game run smoothly, and that no one is there to help you if things go sideways. The only thing that’s going to get everyone safely through to the other side is your preparation, your unwavering focus, and your ability to manage the tempers of preternaturally competitive people with elevated heart rates.
Refereeing is physically demanding. It’s stressful. Sometimes I fear for my safety.
My first assignment of 2023 is on Sunday, and I absolutely cannot wait.