Yet, in every game/match or whatever you want to call it, there is a third team out there - the referee crew. In Soccer, there are more than 130,000 registered referees (me included in that number) that range in age from as young as 12 years old all the way up to 70. As in many sports especially recently in the FIFA World CupTM, referees are blamed, ridiculed, given all sorts of bad names, but are also applauded for their contribution to the game.
Unfortunately, many players and fans forget about the game in hand and take their frustrations out to people that impacts everybody's life, just like it did to a Michigan USSF Referee and his family last week.
John Bieniewicz, 44, died after sustaining injuries he received while refereeing an adult-soccer match. A 36-year old male player who goes by the name of Bassel Abdul-Amir Saad (yeah, a name like that won't cause problems...) did not like one of the calls he received and was about to be Red Carded for a foul (and ejected) and proceeded to punch Bieniewicz in the head while he was looking down to find the Red Card. Saad then left the stadium in a car with a huge Brazil flag. 911 was called where Bieniewicz was sent to the hospital and later declared dead.
Saad did surrender to police later on and is currently charged with "assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder" and the charge is expected to be amended after the death. The case is currently ongoing. Bieniewicz left behind his wife and two sons aged 9 and 13.
This is not the first time an assault to a referee happened. A 17-year old soccer player last year attacked Utah USSF Referee Ricardo Portillo with a punch to the head. Portillo also died as a result and the teen pled guilty to homicide by assault. Portillo left behind his wife and three daughters.
It is times like these we reflect on the "third team" in sports. Like players and coaches, referees dedicate time (usually) to some type of training, studying the rules of competition, and developing players.
From my own experience, every time I step onto a Soccer Field or to do a Flag Football Game, I'm subject to constant criticism (especially Flag Football). I get the ol' "Come on Ref! Are you blind?" or "How can you call that?" or "You're for the other team aren't you?". Yet players and coaches expect referees to know the game fully developed, while in reality - especially in soccer where you are thrown into the fire right away - they are trying to develop their skills. It is rare at the recreation level I work at that the referees there stay for any more than a year. I'm about to enter my sixth year in soccer refereeing.
Especially in tournaments, I'm at risk of assault every single game. It only takes one bad temper and one questionable call - whatever the call was right or wrong in the end - to very possibly see my life end and become another national story just like the two I mentioned above. This can be avoided if we teach the players the proper way to represent themselves. We cannot teach the youth, any school, and any community to "join the crowd of dissent". I cannot tell you how often I hear a rather unqualified coach say "don't worry about it, that one call the referee made is what cost us the game". What is that teaching those players? You are not telling them to get better so they can overcome the call or that other things in the game is what cost the team, you are telling them to blame someone besides the other team for that loss. What happens is that their mind is over the "bad call" from the referee instead of how they got into that position to lose that game and put the game on a single call from a referee. In their next game, their attention will be on the referee if another questionable call does not go their way instead of how it got to that point and they will be more likely to berate the referee and even come after them.
I had a 1-0 soccer game where the goal occurred in the 2nd minute via a penalty kick of a 80-minute match. I made a call (which everybody saw and knew it was deserved) to allow that opportunity for the goal to happen. The other team had 78 minutes to overcome it and score a goal themselves. It didn't happen, but they didn't blame the game on a call, they didn't score and they know it and had no one to blame but themselves for not making it happen.
These deaths serve as a reminder at all sports that referees are human. These officials that "love" the sports that they call and do are ALWAYS refining their skills and developing new ones. I would be lying to you that after 5 years of calling soccer games that I am still not a student of the game and developing my skills and obtaining new skills - especially with my Autism disability that serves as a social disadvantage I have learned to be able to overcome when communicating with players and coaches. Not to mention how much time I have sacrificed over the years to referee soccer. It's not like I'm getting paid thousands to do this. I barely make a net couple hundred in a weekend and the wear and tear that my car takes on in making all those trips to Memphis, Tupelo, Starkville, Meridian, Columbus, and Tuscaloosa for ODP Camp (which I'm about to embark on next week).
Ever since becoming a referee, I have made a concentrated effort to not go after the referee after every questionable call, but to see their vantage point (and try to see the call from their viewpoint) and make reason as to why they made that call. I make that effort because I know how hard it is to call the sport they are calling.
The next time you head to a sporting event, remember that referees have families too. These referees are (usually) trying to do the best they can to call a fair game. Most importantly, control the tempers and don't make irrational decisions when things do not fall your way. You may affect many more than one life if you decide to be irrational and assault the person that called it the other way.