It happened in a blur: 10-year-old boys were playing their Saturday soccer game. An outraged father stormed onto the field, insisting the referee wasn't calling the game correctly.
Much shouting, alleged verbal abuse. The referee punched the father and knocked him unconscious. The game was called. A lawsuit followed.
This incident occurred last fall in a Maryland suburb. Though such violent confrontation obviously is unusual in local youth soccer, the incident focused attention on what many parents, coaches and referees acknowledge has been a long-simmering problem: intense, aggressive over-involvement by parents in a sport geared to fun for kids.
The opinion of many observers: It's time to change.
"There's a win-at-any-cost mentality," says Diane Barlow, president of Montgomery Soccer, Inc., or MSI, as it is called by the more than 8,000 children who play on its Maryland and District teams.
"Too many adults treat a kid's Saturday soccer game like it's the finals of the World Cup or leading to the Olympics," says Barlow, 41, a doctoral student in library science whose three sons played with MSI.
"They put enormous pressure on the kids. I've heard parents screaming directions, berating their own and other children, insulting referees.
"By far the most intense involvement is with the younger kids," she claims, "just exactly where you don't want to see it."
"Parents abuse referees, and put pressure on children playing the game to the point where it is no longer fun because of comments from the sidelines," says Mavis Derflinger, a founder of WAGS (Women and Girls' Soccer League), which sponsors teams for 3,000 area players.
Although agreeing that there has been a problem, Adele Dolansky, current president of WAGS, says they have been able to straighten it out. "Our coaches are able to keep a handle on parents at team meetings."
In the past decade, the Washington area has experienced the same phenomenal rise in soccer playing as the rest of the United States. The U.S. Soccer Federation registered over a million youth players this year, compared with 2,000 seven years ago. The figure does not include thousands of unregistered, independent clubs.
"Soccer has become the 'in' sport at youth level," claims Gordon Bradley, vice president of Washington's Team America.
"Reasons for the game's popularity," says Bradley, whose two sons play high-school soccer, "are that it is fast-moving; everybody can play; each kid is a quarterback; there is no time out, and you don't have to be a particular height, weight or size.
"But the point of youth soccer should be nothing more nor less than enjoyment while learning. Excessive competitive involvement on the part of adults has got to cease. We must bring good sportsmanship and pleasure back to the game or else we have failed as parents and adults."
Many observers agree on a major difficulty: A lot of parents do not understand the rules of soccer. "They did not grow up with the game," says British-born Graham Ramsey, Washington-area soccer consultant who offers coaching clinics.
"It has mushroomed so fast that adults have not had time to learn it. Americans think that many basketball and football rules apply in soccer."
He gives as an example the fact that in basketball, if a ball bounces on the sidelines it is out of bounds. But in soccer, the sideline is considered part of the playing field.
"Yet you will hear parents shouting 'out of bounds' at every game, getting intensely frustrated and angry because the referee didn't call it their way, though they are wrong," says Ramsey.
Concern about lack of knowledge on the part of parents as well as a desire to de-emphasize competition and restore sportsmanship has prompted local leagues and clubs to create new practices.
One development is the soccer clinic, at which parents, children, coaches and referees meet with experts to go over the rules of the game, learn player and spectator ethics and soccer etiquette.
Such a clinic was sponsored recently by the Potomac Soccer Association. Seventy-five people attended, though "unfortunately some who could have benefited most did not show up," says Robert Dunn, 43, an economist and president of the Potomac club, for which his 9- and 11-year-old sons play.
"We stressed the conduct and rules of soccer. Examples of sportsmanship were given. We made it clear that the goal is not winning but to develop children's values and skills.
"Of course you have to remember that children see professional sports on television where often sportsmanship is not a top priority."
MSI has taken the lead in trying to end the concept "that there are winners and losers, particularly for kids under 9," says Barlow. "We have a committee evaluating a number of ways to accomplish this."
One MSI step has been to eliminate team trophies for young players, awarding individual-participation trophies to each child instead.
MSI also is expanding the training period of new coaches, to give time to emphasize sportsmanship and the psychology of young learners.
"Many parents and even coaches don't understand the role of the coach," says Barlow. "The coach is supposed to analyze the game, make substitutions at halftime and talk to the team then. Instructional training should be restricted to week-day practice."
A new step for MSI this year has been to require that chalk lines be drawn 3-5 yards around sidelines. "We hope," says Barlow, "that some physical distance will create psychological distance between players and spectators."
The National Capital Soccer League, or NCSL, which has more than 6,000 kids playing on over 300 teams in the metropolitan area, sponsors traveling teams. It, too, has decreased competitive emphasis recently by raising the age of kids on traveling teams from 8 to 9.
Both NCSL and MSI are now stressing codes of conduct for players and spectators. MSI has always had a written code, which could be found in coaches' handbooks. This year, a letter--which acknowledges the "potential for eruption into confrontation"--was sent to all parents spelling out appropriate standards of conduct.
The NCSL this year for the first time put its code of conduct into writing.
"We have always had one which was understood," says executive director Joanne Palmer, "but this year we required all member clubs to submit a statement of willingness to adhere to our controls of conduct or else write their own code before we would process their applications for playing this season."
As for last fall's confrontation, "Frankly, I'm surprised it hasn't happened more often," says Nelson Kobren, commissioner of the Metropolitan Soccer Referees Association and a referee for various spectator sports over the years. "Soccer brings out an intensity of involvement more than any other sport."
Though Kobren finds last fall's incident "inexcusable," he asserts that "the greatest harassment goes to the referees. They take terrific abuse. Referees get called every name in the book.
"In soccer, strictly speaking, no one can dispute a referee. Dissent is actually a violation."
Kobren says that most referees, however, will answer questions about decisions if legitimate and asked in a proper manner.
He attributes part of soccer's fierce competitiveness to the fact that it attracts hard-driving, ambitious middle-class parents who want desperately for their kids to succeed. "Often they simply cannot accept the fact that their children could do anything wrong.
"If people would realize that referees are only human, and all human beings make mistakes . . . I think that teaching kids good sportsmanship should include learning that not everything in life will go their way."
Outcome of the Montgomery County incident? District Court Judge Stanley Klavan assigned the referee a minimum of 24 hours of Alternative Community Service.