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Youth soccer referees are quitting due to abuse from the sidelines. Ontario hopes body cameras are a solution

In Ontario, young soccer players — and their parents and coaches — will see something new this summer: referees wearing body cameras and calling timeouts if things on the sidelines become too heated.

Ontario Soccer is launching pilot projects in June that will see some referees, primarily at the under-9 and under-11 age groups, with cameras strapped to their chests to deter and record abuse. They’ll also be allowed to call a “referee timeout” to de-escalate tense situations.

“It’s sad we’re doing this, but this is where we’re coming to,” Ontario Soccer’s chief executive Johnny Misley said. “That’s less about the players, more about spectators, coaches, team officials.

“There’s a lot of just ridiculous abuse of referees in amateur sport in general that is appalling, absolutely appalling, and all we’re trying to do is our part at educating but, more importantly, trying to change a culture.”

These soccer experiments are the latest steps being taken to curb referee abuse, which sport leaders say is a major contributor to the officiating crisis that has left numerous sports with too few referees to oversee games.

Last year, there were 4,950 soccer referees registered in Ontario, well below the 8,313 on record in 2019 (the last year before the COVID pandemic) and no where near the 12,000 that Ontario Soccer estimates are needed given the game’s growing popularity.

No. 1 reason for quitting is abuse

The number one reason soccer officials give for quitting is abuse, followed by feeling unsupported by their local community or organization and insufficient game assignments, Misley said.

“If there are no referees, then there’s no game,” he said, noting they are already running matches with one official instead of three to stretch the referee pool.

The “no ref, no game” mantra is one that’s being used across numerous sports struggling to attract and retain officials.

Last year, there were 4,745 hockey officials registered in Ontario, far below the 7,581 from before the pandemic. Shortages of baseball umpires and rugby officials have also been reported in many communities.

This has been a growing problem for years but was made exponentially worse by the pandemic. Athletes have come back to sport but far fewer officials have. Many decided to retire or found other things to do with their spare time than risk being yelled at on fields and pitches, sport leaders say.

Ending referee abuse is a vital part of the fix, they say. As is broadening recruitment methods and better supporting and mentoring young referees so they want to stay on the job long enough to move up to more senior levels of the game.

One such campaign, launched by Football Ontario, is how Heath Weir — a football coach for the last 25 years and a player before that — found himself taking the officiating course for the first time in his life.

Weir, a Huron Heights Secondary School teacher and football coach, has been in a classroom with other coaches and 10 high school football players in their Newmarket school on Wednesdays after the final bell, learning what it takes to be an official.

Referees have been ‘taken for granted’

“Everyone’s always so busy complaining about the officials or yelling at the official, like at a hockey games when I was growing up, but you know what? Without these guys, there is no game, whatever game it is you play,” Weir said.

“(Referees) have been taken for granted for too long, even by coaches like myself. Ten years ago you didn’t think about this stuff. Now everyone’s going ‘holy smokes, we don’t have enough officials across the province.’”

At the peak, there were about 1,000 tackle football officials in Ontario. That was down to 800 just before the pandemic and dropped to 500 coming out of it, said Football Ontario’s chief executive Aaron Geisler.

With the help of an Ontario Trillium Foundation grant and their team Zebras campaign they got back to 700 last year. It’s progress but still not enough, especially with the rapid growth of flag football, which only has about a quarter of the officials it needs, Geisler said.

“Can we retain them? Can we make sure they stick around for more than two years? That’s definitely a struggle. I know that’s sport wide.”

Like athletes, it takes years for referees to build up the experience and skills required to officiate for older age groups and more senior level competitions where the shortage is most acute.

Lacrosse, for example, has 650 officials — about the right number it needs in Ontario — but 66 per cent of them are brand new this year, said Jeramie Bailey of the Ontario Lacrosse Association.

“They have never stepped on the floor or field before. They have zero experience. So if you can think about if 66 per cent of the drivers on the road were brand new, the kind of chaos that might be there.”

Most regions will have no trouble staffing youth games, he said, but at higher levels some games may still be cancelled because there aren’t enough refs with the necessary certification levels. Lacrosse has already taken mitigating steps, such as going down to two officials instead of three and requiring clubs to have multiple games on a single night so one set of officials can work them all.

As part of its expanded recruitment strategy, the sport association ran more certification clinics for officials, including two in Indigenous communities and one for women only. Now, it needs all those new officials to enjoy their experience so they stay long enough to move up to the more senior levels of officiating.

“If their experience is negative that hurts for years to come,” Bailey said.

Long-term mental health impact for referees

There are few statistics on referee abuse in Ontario because most instances at the community level, especially verbal, go unreported, soccer leaders say. But Michelle Loveless, executive director of the Durham Region Soccer Association says she and colleagues in other regions are seeing more cases since the pandemic and an increase in the severity with more physical abuse and extreme verbal assaults.

We’re just seeing a heightened animosity coming out of COVID. It’s like people have forgotten how to be in social public settings,” Loveless said. “Typically, we see the most match official assault cases in our adult recreational men’s leagues. Unfortunately, we’re also seeing an increase at the grassroots level at the U8 through U12 and that’s more around parent behaviour toward officials.”

The problem in soccer is widespread and concerning enough that a research study is starting shortly to track the long-term mental and physical health impacts of being a soccer referee.

A referee looks on as kids in North Toronto Soccer practice at Eglinton Park in Toronto.

Adrian Tanjala was 15 years old when he started referring soccer and was taunted by a parent-coach shouting, “Hey, four-eyes!”

“It’s shocking to see parents, people you think would have empathy toward children, they say some nasty things sometimes,” said Tanjala, 21, who is now the head referee at North Toronto Soccer.

In 2021, after he was assaulted on the field during a recreational under-18 match, he decided: “That’s it, I’m done.” He stopped officiating until moving to North Toronto Soccer where he says the club takes referee abuse seriously and supports its officials.

He thinks Ontario Soccer’s body cameras and referee timeout pilots projects will raise public awareness and accountability.

“You can say there’s a real problem with refereeing in Ontario, in Canada, in terms of the culture that surrounds the way referees are treated but in many cases it’s dismissed because people don’t feel the effects right away.”

Ontario Soccer hopes its body camera and referee timeout pilot projects will make a difference for officials on the pitch this summer and also help inform sport research and contribute to evidence-based solutions.

“We have a sport that happens to be the most visible sport in the world and is a high-participation sport,” Misley said. “We have a chance to maybe make something positive out of this whole thing and try to curb and change culture.”


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