COLUMBIA, S.C. — Heckling referees is practically a tradition in any sport, but South Carolina youth soccer officials feel it’s gone too far.
Come September, they’re instituting a new rule: “No cheering, no jeering.”
Overeager parents will get two warnings. If they don’t pipe down the third time, they’ll be kicked out.
The state’s Youth Soccer Association is calling this code of conduct “Silent September.” And it’s cracking down after problems with parents who are verbally, and even physically, aggressive toward referees — some of whom are still kids themselves.
“I have witnessed parents yelling things directly at children on the other team or yelling things directly at a referee who might be 14, 15 or 16, who they themselves are just learning how to referee,” the association’s rules and compliance chair Burns Davison said.
There are about 1,200 soccer referees in South Carolina. More than 500 are 17 or younger.
In April, a 16-year-old referee was assaulted by a player’s mother, said Kenneth Ayers, state referee administrator at the South Carolina Referee Association.
The parent ran onto the field and shoved the teen after he called a foul on her child.
Bob Correia, a soccer referee for more than 30 years, has been on the receiving end more than once.
Things got so bad at a game earlier this year, Correia said, that he made a call that had nothing to do with the 10-year-olds playing on the field.
Spectators and even a coach jeered at him throughout that game. And it didn’t end with the final whistle.
“I was writing the score on a little sheet of paper on a golf cart, kind of bent over,” Correia said. “And this parent came from behind me and grabbed my tricep and said, ‘Leave your damn ego at home.'”
After the encounter, Correia called police and reported an assault. Parents, he said, need to learn how to keep things in perspective.
“It’s not the World Cup,” he said. “These kids are just learning how to play.”
The concept of asking parents to shush at their kids’ soccer games isn’t new.
It first gained attention in 1999 after a girls soccer league in northern Ohio instituted a one-day ban.
Since then, youth leagues in various states have tried “Silent Saturdays” from time to time, including Colorado.
South Carolina’s move goes further because it’s declaring silence for an entire month.
Parents responded with angry phone calls and emails. Most argued jeers are a part of the sport.
“As a spectator, having a son that also plays in the state leagues, I understand that it is going to be different and it’s not going to have the same feel,” Ayers said.
But the initiative isn’t really intended to leave games in complete silence.
“If a grandma says, ‘Good job, Jimmy,’ I’m not going to throw her out,” Correia said. “But it’s gotten to the point where we’re running out of referees because of parent abuse.”
There’s almost 30,000 kids playing youth soccer in South Carolina. But referee ranks aren’t growing.
Those who’ve called it quits say the biggest reason is the heckling from spectators.
“They don’t want to go out there for 20 bucks and get yelled at for an hour,” Correia said.
The start of soccer season in September is a critical time for retaining referees. If they can make it through those first few games and into October, it’s much more likely that they’ll stay, officials say.
That’s where “Silent September” comes in. Correia doesn’t know if the silence is the right solution, but it’s a start.
“I think it’s a good start to show parents that we’re there for the kids,” he said. “We’re not there for the parents.”