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If you've been to a youth sporting event recently, you know there are times when parents and other adults behave badly. When a call doesn't go in little Johnny or Suzy's favor, all sorts of expletives are hurled in the direction of the referee.
With that in mind, it's no wonder that officials at the South Carolina Youth Soccer Association have called for "Silent September" at all SCYSA-sponsored games. The heckling and poor behavior have hurt the league's ability to retain referees, officials say.
There will be no "cheering or jeering," officials wrote in a memo about the new rule. A first offense will result in a referee asking the coach to counsel the offender. On the second offense, the coach will be told — not asked — to counsel the offending party. If it comes down to a third offense, three strikes as it were, the offender is out of there. And if the person doesn't leave on his own, or if the coach refuses to insist on the person leaving, the coach will be booted from the game. The game will be halted if another adult doesn't step in and coach.
Indeed, it's a sad state of affairs when parents and other adults have to be told how to behave in front of children. League officials believe the "Silent September" move will bring attention to the issue. Some of the referees are teenagers who earn between $15-$25 a game. It's a great job for a teenager with an interest and knowledge in the sport and a thick skin.
Kenneth Ayers of the South Carolina Referee Association told The Greenville News last week that his organization re-certifies about 35 percent of its new referees each year. Those who don't return complain about the sideline behavior of parents and fans.
In his 30 years as a youth soccer coach in Greenville, Hiram Springle has seen it all, and heard it all. He began coaching when his son was a child. "Now he's grown and I'm stuck with it," he says with a laugh.
Springle coaches 12 and under boys and girls and 15 and under girls soccer. He believes the "Silent September rule" is unrealistic and will be difficult to enforce.
For one, fans are on one side of the field and the coach is on the other. In addition to watching the game and coaching players, now coaches will be expected to police parents and other adults.
Plus, part of the fun of youth sports is cheering for the teams and players, especially when they do well, he said. Every game, he and other coaches have been building a bridge on the field as a show of sportsmanship. He'd like to see the league focus more on better training for referees. And he'd like to see parents be more respectful.
"Parents need to understand and behave respectfully — toward the referees and all the kids that are playing."
An occasional bad call is part of the game, but when a referee consistently gets calls wrong, or unfairly penalizes one team, parents have a right to speak up, he said.
In soccer, the offsides penalty is one of the most difficult calls to make, especially in the games involving younger players because there is only one referee present. Compounding the problem is that many parents — and some referees — don't understand the offsides rule.
Having an adult marshal — perhaps someone in a big red vest — present at the games to serve as an intermediary could help, says Springle.
Bill Martin, executive director of United FC — Furman, coaches North Greenville University's men's soccer team and has watched his children play soccer. He has also watched them referee games.
United FC has 1,300 players ages 3-18.
"There clearly is a correction that needs to made," Martin said. "'Silent September' is a time for parents to withdraw from that environment, sit back and be quiet for four games in their career. Let the coach coach and the kids play. Just back up a little bit."
Perhaps the time out will cause the pendulum to swing back toward the middle, away from parents thinking its their job to coach, says Martin, adding that his league works hard to stress character education with players, coaches and fans.
While Martin and others think "Silent September" will help, it's unlikely that parents who are abusive to referees are going to abide by the month-long rule when play resumes this fall.
In sports, as in life, there are always going to be a few bad actors. It doesn't seem fair to punish all fans for the behavior of a few.
Parents will do well to realize that children don't often do what they hear, but what they see.
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