By Tim Nash
I just spent five days watching experienced referees coach and mentor young officials at the US Youth Soccer Region III Championships.
I watched, listened and asked questions as some of the best and most experienced referees in the country spent time helping the next generation of officials improve in all aspects of officiating.
And guess what? None of the instruction included telling the referees to choose a team to screw. Not once were the young refs told to try to anger the crowd, or irritate the home fans.
But it happens, doesn’t it? We live in an era when every call is debated and scrutinized through multiple instant replays and fans get countless chances to see a controversial play that the ref gets to see once for a split second.
That’s why much of the instruction given to young refs revolved around the importance of positioning, movement and angles, angles, angles.
Some calls they get right, some they get wrong, and those are the ones we remember. The ref, of course, is often the easiest target for blame when things don’t go our way. While I wish, we would understand that human error is part of the game, move on and forget about a call, I know that’s not likely or even possible.
But I still find it difficult to understand the level of hatred some fans have toward a referee who makes a call against their team, a call that seriously effects the outcome of the game.
Hatred reached a disturbing level for some Orlando City fans after a June 4 game against the Chicago Fire. In that game, referee Ted Unkel issued a red card to Orlando City’s Rafael Ramos in the 26th minute. The card was appealed and overturned three days later, meaning the foul by Ramos was judged not to be worthy of a red card. But that’s beside the point here.
After the game, an Orlando City fan posted Unkel’s personal contact information on Twitter along with this: “When you have a lot of free time on summer vacation, here’s the phone number if you care to join me in calling him and letting him know how much we love him.”
The Tweet was condemned by Orlando City, MLS, the Professional Referees Association and most MLS fans. And that’s where the story ends, right?
Wrong. Add in 15 death threats, police reports, and some serious considerations about personal safety, and the story is still not over.
Ted Unkel is married to Christina Unkel. They are both FIFA referees — Ted one of seven American men to hold a FIFA Badge; Christina one of three American women with FIFA certification. They live in Florida and have a 20-month-old daughter. They were both at the Region III Championship mentoring young referees. Referees don’t get FIFA Badges for being bad.
Ted, of course, isn’t new at this. He knows that a certain amount of criticism goes along with his chosen profession.
“I understand that fans are fanatic, passionate and supportive of their teams,” he says. “As referees, we understand that. We know we are going to get criticized on the field. We understand there’s a negative connotation about us, and fans feel we have something against their team.”
Until recently, Unkel also understood that there was a limit to what fans would do. Recently, though, the boundaries of that limit have become blurred. Death threats will do that.
“For someone to go over the line and make it personal, causing us to re-think our safety at home or a threat to our business – now I have to think about putting security cameras outside my house — it’s something that should never be involved in sports or soccer,” he says.
“It sickened me to have to go through that. And unfortunately, a couple other referees in Major League Soccer had to go through that a few years ago. The punishment for something like that needs to be excessive to the point where no one has to deal with it.”
Over the past few years, we’ve heard about a referee shortage in youth soccer. All kinds of possible reasons are thrown around, but the treatment of officials is always at the top. Even at an event like the region championships, one coach somehow felt it was okay to call the ref a fagot, and another coach chose pussy as his go-to insult. Those are the only two I heard about.
The five days spent with referees at the regionals was eye-opening and encouraging for the most part. The young refs take their games seriously, giving each game the respect it deserves and taking pride in their performances. On the other hand, there are few positives in treatment they receive.