By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
As the 13-year-old girls chased the soccer ball around the verdant field Sunday, one set of parents watched from the sidelines in comfy collapsible chairs, sipping coffee. The others were banished to a nearby hill, straining to see the action with binoculars.
The parents rooting for Bethesda's Legacy travel team at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds were being punished for behavior at the end of last season, when a referee was berated for a call. Saying their actions were "nothing less than egregious," the Washington Area Girls Soccer League took the unusual step of banning them from the sidelines for two games, and a referee made sure they stayed back.
The soccer league, home to many of the area's best soccer players with 600 teams and more than 15,000 participants, has a strict disciplinary system, in which players and coaches receive yellow or red cards for rough or unsportsmanlike conduct. Some have to explain themselves at disciplinary hearings. There are also sportsmanship liaisons on each team, who are supposed to keep fellow parents in check.
Aggressive or otherwise inappropriate behavior by individual parents at soccer games or other youth sporting events happens with regularity these days. But this case was unusual because the whole team's parents were punished.
Kathie Diapoulis, league president, said the parents had gone too far. The league's disciplinary board has had better luck barring individual parents from attending games in the past three years rather than fining them, because the parents would pay the money and continue the bad behavior.
"We have taken a strong stance," Diapoulis said. "It's important. This isn't the World Cup. . . . And for the parents to be shrieking on the sidelines and belittling people goes against everything we're trying to do. . . . It's not acceptable behavior."
At Sunday's game against the Montgomery Soccer Club's Xcel, a referee was assigned to make sure the Legacy parents did not come within 100 yards of the field. Managers were equipped with emergency cellphone numbers in case of another altercation.
Elisa Chetrit, 43, a Potomac resident and a Legacy parent, said that at the game last fall during which the unsportsmanlike conduct occurred, the parents were "all frustrated together" about what they perceived to be bad calls by the referees. "There are many reasons why [the incident happened], but the point is we've got to shut up and keep going. . . . You can't let those things get to you. You just have to sit on the sidelines and not say anything."
The trouble began when a parent from the Springfield Youth Club's Xplosion working as an assistant referee raised a flag in the air and called an offside violation on a Bethesda player, according to the minutes of the disciplinary hearing. After the game, a Bethesda parent approached the referee and accused him of making the wrong call, the report says. The parent "started to raise his voice," according to the report. More sniping occurred, and "the tone and behavior of the parents was aggressive." Then another Bethesda parent allegedly yelled at the referee's daughter, "Your father should be fired!"
The league's disciplinary committee ruled that the Bethesda parents had violated the league's code of conduct -- which asks parents to refrain from questioning referees' calls -- through "egregious" behavior that "has no place in youth sports." They ruled that the parents could not be on the sidelines for the first two games of this season.
"There was a game where our parents were a little bit vocal about the refereeing. . . . Things can get emotional, but you have to keep up the sportsmanlike spirit," said Legacy's manager, Mark Lauda, an Olney resident. "We're not a problem team at all. It was just one thing that happened."
As the cost and competitiveness of youth sports have increased over the years, so have incidents of parental misbehavior, experts say, despite efforts to institute codes of conduct and "Silent Sundays," when parents agree not to talk at all during games. According to a Sports Illustrated Kids poll, 74 percent of children have witnessed out-of-control parents at their games.
Amid the thump of soccer balls and shouts of encouragement Sunday, the Xcel parents kept an eye on the sanctioned parents, even saying later that they thought a reporter snapping photos on their sideline might have been a Bethesda parent violating the 100-yard setback.
"It's embarrassing," one of the parents said. "This is seventh-grade soccer."
Across the way, Potomac lawyer Philip Page watched his daughter Jacqueline play through binoculars, which was "very maddening." Especially because he wasn't even at the game where the unsportsmanlike conduct occurred.
"We accepted our punishment, and we're abiding by it," Page said. "One of the functions of sports is to teach sportsmanship. When we as parents violate that, the girls need to see there are consequences to those actions."
The Legacy team lost, 2-0. Their parents filed glumly off the hill, their timeout completed. They put their sweaty daughters in SUVs and minivans and quickly left the parking lot.
Many of the vehicles had stickers with the league's motto: "Lasting Friendships Through Soccer."