This weekend we were watching the closing minutes of a soccer game before my son was taking the field with his team. The game was between teams of 18-year-olds in a tournament, and clearly something contentious had happened earlier.
The coaches were jawing at the referee. The players seemed more focused on pushing each other around than winning the ball or scoring goals. It was tense, but also lazy, soccer. My wife and I watched the feisty grind to pass time.
But then chaos broke out.
As a loose ball skittered into a dangerous area, a defender lost track of the forward he was marking. Once he relocated him, it was too late to do anything but foul him. The defender brought his opponent down in a dangerous rugby tackle, maliciously hooking the forward’s legs as they rolled on the ground. The forward sprung up from the tackle, prepared for a fight. And he got it.
The goalkeeper rushed forward and blindsided him with a shove.
What followed was a predictable shower of yellow cards and red cards, eventually sending off three players. That’s where the drama should have ended. As someone who didn’t care a bit about which team won, I judged that the referee had done his job. Tempers subsided.
But then, the dad from the sidelines piped up.
“That’s just terrible,” he said to the referee. “How can you do that to my son? You are just terrible!”
The ref spun on his heels and asked, rhetorically he hoped, “Do you want to leave too?”
“You should be parking cars!” the dad shouted. “You are awful. You should be parking cars!”
If I printed here the number of times the dad mentioned the referee’s acumen with storing automobiles, you wouldn’t believe it. It was his furious public mantra. Over and over, louder and louder, with “parking cars!”
A field marshal arrived. More shouting, plus an escort to the parking lot (fittingly) for the dad. After five minutes, the game resumed.
This story is just this weekend’s installment from our experience watching parent madness in youth soccer. We’ve seen parents ejected. Parents mouthing at opposing 12-year-olds while they are playing. One parent glowered over a referee as he stalked after him, saying, “I’m gonna kick your a**.”
Years ago, while photographing a football game, I saw a referee call off the rest of the game after a parent stormed onto the field on the opening kickoff! Just one play was the entirety of a game. Thanks to one parent.
I write these words with full understanding of how unreasonable I have been. My family even has a meme of something I once said to a teenage ref — during a soccer game for 10-year-olds — after his call led to a goal.
I screamed, “That’s on you, sir!” with a toxic blend of accusation and mocking respect.
I have found it difficult to be the good sports parent that I hope to be. We want our kids to win. We want them to compete fairly. And we get particularly livid when we feel missed calls put them at risk of injury. There are reasons behind the madness festering in the folding chair on the sidelines.
But it’s madness still.
This year, I made a promise to my son. I would stop coaching him from the sidelines. We pay a coach who is far more talented than me for that. I would also stop screaming at the refs.
At the outset of my promise, I kept score using a note on my phone. Each game that I avoided coaching my kid or the ref earned me a tally. It helped me see that I was making progress.
And it worked — mostly. I made it through a season with dozens of games without coaching my boy. My wife only occasionally has to reach over with a calming hand on my forearm to remind me of my silliness toward officials.
The irony is that my son is now reffing games. What would I think if I saw a dad yelling at my son that he is awful or that he had ruined a family’s weekend by failing to raise an offside flag?
Sports leagues struggle to fill officiating slots. We have an insatiable appetite for youth sports that requires hundreds of referees for games every weekend: Baseball, soccer, basketball and volleyball run essentially year-round. Yet our ferocity towards officials repels so many potential young refs. One social media account documents the nationwide problems of parents who yell during youth sports.
As I work to be more reasonable, I have realized the biggest reward for being a sane parent comes on the ride home after the game. You might think “venting” toward the ref about a missed offsides call or a questionable foul would have left me feeling relieved.
But the truth is, time after time, I felt ashamed. My focus was on how I embarrassed myself, wishing I could take it back, rather than on the truly incredible thing: My son was playing soccer — a far more elegant brand of soccer than any soccer I ever played — with a gaggle of friends he loves and a coach he admires.
That is my goal these days: to shut up with my negativity on the sidelines so that after the game I can return home with a light heart, and do an incredible job of parking my car.
Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.