No one can truly be called a saint before enduring a season of refereeing kids' soccer. Anyone who has attended more than a game or so at that level, who has seen 40-year-olds act 11 -- or less -- and who has heard language on the field from some noxious nippers that would stun a sailor, must be dumbfounded that a referee hadn't popped a parent until last weekend.
Some parents and coaches will argue that's all backwards, that the real soccer sickness is referees, well-meaning dunderheads who wouldn't know offsides from their backsides, who are slow and sightless as well as insensitive and incompetent. How they get certified is the compelling mystery of sport.
The sad fact is that both arguments have more than slivers of truth. We don't have anything close to soccercide here; we do have a significant problem at the scale of the sport that's supposed to be inspiring instead of inflammatory. It is: rampant ignorance, the blind badgering the blind.
Soccer is both the fastest-growing sport here and the least understood. Those who officiate, participate and spectate certainly are no more inherently evil than those who take the fun out of the major sports for kids. And with close to 1,000 games on some weekends, soccer may be more prevalent among area youngsters than football and baseball.
Probably, soccer has swelled too swiftly for its own good. The referee punching a parent during a game for 11-year-olds Saturday rivets attention on a subject that had better be faced by everyone who cares deeply about the sport. It's the Little League Syndrome magnified by intensely competitive people who do not know as much about soccer as they think.
Imagine what might happen, say, if American football were suddenly turned loose in Scotland, if hundreds of parents and kind souls were suddenly thrust into coaching and officiating a totally unfamiliar sport their kids suddenly adored. Imagine some Americans in Scotland whose offspring were on some teams, or who became coaches and referees.
Very often, there would be parents on the sidelines more sophisticated than officials controlling the game. When they saw an act of ignorance, their already bubbling juices would begin to boil. And parents who knew less than their children just learning football might well be angered beyond belief by an official who actually knew what he was doing.
Welcome to kids' soccer in large pockets of America.
"I think it'll all turn around in 10 or 15 years," said Tom Bichy, the soccer coach at Montgomery College, "when the players in college become parents, coaches and officials. Now, so many simply don't have the background. They just aren't knowledgeable on the sidelines. And there's a shortage of manpower for referees.
"If there are 350 working officials, maybe 25 to 50 are really good. But on any Saturday the other 300 also are out there."
Often at the preteen and early teen games, only one referee is available. That's one set of eyes to cover essentially a football field and 20 players doing whatever is necessary to win. If soccer does not feature limb-snapping collisions, it does encourage subtle swings with elbows and legs that fester as much fan and player violence as football.
Probably, little Johnny really did get gouged in the groin; probably, the referee would have called it had his eyes not been on the ball 40 yards away. He cannot be 15 places at the same time; he cannot even be two. So when some burly fullback kicks the ball 55 yards, any one-man crew is going to miss an important offsides now and then.
To some parents and coaches, one blown call calls for hanging.
I know a parent who was red-carded, run out of the immediate area for being abusive. Anywhere else, he is a generally calm and reasonable man. A referee admitted yesterday that he flipped an especially irksome junior-high player on his back after he could tolerate no more postgame sass. Yes, the official said, he was suspended. But the human mind can take only so much.
"I teach an officiating class," said Bichy (pronounced BIC-e), "and I was telling them yesterday how I would have handled that (punching incident). Without knocking the guy, without really knowing all that much about it, you have to maintain control.
"You have to threaten forfeit whenever anyone walks onto the field. What I'd have done, when they came at me, was to look at my watch and say: 'You have 30 seconds to get off the field or it's a forfeit . . . 26 . . . 23 . . . ' The coach is responsible for his team, his parents."
And the responsibility of a league?
"We're trying to do more in the way of education," said Chip Shooshan, deputy commissioner of Montgomery Soccer Inc., where the Saturday sadness took place. "We're teaching our coaches all the rules; others are teaching the officials. Then the coaches teach the kids, and the kids teach the parents. We're also considering having a member of the officials' association on the MSI board.
"Channels of communication must be kept open."
That means minds must be kept open.
"It's such an emotional sport," said Bichy, adding that Americans still aren't as mean-tempered as fans in many soccer-passionate countries. "But all week coaches tell these little kids to trap the ball and pass it. Then comes the game and you have parents yelling: 'Kick it . . . kick it.' There may well be a way to control the ball; parents only see trouble.
"Kids hear their parents."
The appeal of soccer, what Bichy calls its "beautifulness," is its continuity, its flow, rules so uncomplicated that few whistles and almost no talk is needed to officiate a game played and watched by wise and understanding people. It's a sport worth savoring; let's save it for the generation that appreciates it.
"The officials are doing the best they can," Bichy said, "although some simply lack the background and experience. And if people do not want to be in control of themselves, there's nothing an official can do."