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Lack of referees squeezes youth sports

18-year-old soccer official Riley Palmer
Christine Kueter
18-year-old soccer official Riley Palmer

It’s senior night at Appomattox High School, and the Altavista Colonels are playing the Raiders, the hometown favorite. By the time spectators sing the National Anthem, 18-year-old Riley Palmer has already walked the field perimeter, checked the soccer goals, and put on her a bright green referee’s shirt. Tonight, she’s one of three referees officiating the boys’ varsity game.

While this evening’s crowd is docile, Palmer says it isn’t always so. “It was a girls’ varsity game this year, and coach apparently hated me," she remembers. "I’m not sure why, and yelled about every call, and stuff I didn’t call. He said ‘This is the worst reffing I’ve had this year.’ Looking back, I should have carded the coach but I was nervous. He’s a taller guy, and it’s a lot, especially in my first varsity game. I was too nervous to have carded him and that’s something I regret.”

Experiences like that are one reason fewer youngsters are signing on to become referees. Kelly Haney of the Virginia High School League estimates that COVID-19 trimmed 2,000 referees from its roster, including many older ones. Today, they’re still down about 1,000 referees, which keeps officials constantly vying for new recruits.

The shortage has struck soccer especially hard. In 2018-19, there were about 6,400 soccer referees in Virginia. Today, there are just 3,600. Lecky Stone is commissioner of soccer officials for the Piedmont region and organizes referees for about 100 youth soccer games each Saturday. Three-quarters of them are younger than 17 and at least a third quit in their first year.

“Getting them interested in the first place, there’s no magic to that," Stone notes. "But keeping them is very difficult. Some barely make it through the first couple of weekends before they say, ‘This is not for me.’ The ones that make it a couple of months start to drop out because some parent or coach has made them miserable, made them cry, and then they decide it’s just not worth it.”

Fewer officials means games get cancelled or that parents and coaches have to fill in, sometimes with mixed results. Other times, it means Stone referees five or six games in a weekend, despite the fact that he’s 67 and has a bad knee. He keeps a clean referee uniform in his car.

Mort Sajadian is also on stand-by. He’s commissioner of Blue Ridge Soccer Officials and a former professional referee who says incivility is the sport’s biggest challenge. “Even when they have an opportunity to make anywhere from $50 to $100 a game, they’re not as interested anymore. They go there, get all kinds of abuse, and bang, they say, ‘I don’t want to do that anymore.’”

Some states like Nebraska have organized awareness campaigns to keep rowdy parents and coaches in check. One Minnesota town banned coaches and parents from a youth soccer tournament. In Virginia, some soccer officials, like Sajadian and Stone, now demand that clubs identify one of their own players or a parent get certified to help officiate next season’s games—or face the possibility of their games’ cancellation.

And if things get too nasty, Sajadian teaches young referees to know when to call off a game. “If you feel like they’re impacting your ability to do the game, stop the game, go to the coach, and say, ‘Coach, either you deal with it, or we’re done here. I’m going.’ I tell my refs, ‘If that happens, you’ll get paid for the game, don’t worry about it, just leave.’ Maybe if we do that more often more parents become better trained.”

Palmer says tuning out hecklers is second nature. “I’ve always had some confidence issues, so I found the refereeing, having to put myself in a different headspace, having to really be confident to be able to actually do my job, I’ve gotten more confident in other areas of my life.”

Reffing hasn’t cooled her love of the game. After graduating from high school, she’ll head to King University in Tennessee to play college soccer.

Want to be an official? The Virginia High School League has more information for both high school and youth sports.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.