One day last soccer season, an unhappy parent threw a gym bag at coach Wolfgang Weber’s head.
Weber, who is the most accomplished soccer coach in Tucson history, ducked just in time. The Tucson Soccer Academy insisted the parent complete an anger-management course before attending another game.
“I had another game in which a parent came to the sideline and pushed me out of my chair,” he said. “I just shake my head; is this ever going to get any better?”
One day last winter, two 9-year-olds in the Pima County Junior Soccer League, an organization of more than 5,500 players, squared off at midfield and had a fistfight.
“It was spurred by parents shouting from the sidelines,” remembers Ted Schmidt, a Tucson attorney who is district commissioner of the PCJSL. “So we decided, ‘We’ve got to do something.’ Civility isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse.”
If you’ve ever sat at a Little League baseball game and had your afternoon ruined by loudmouth and uncouth parents shouting mean things, you know what Schmidt is saying.
How bad does fan behavior get? At the Sahuaro-Salpointe baseball game in April, a parent charged onto the field and all but body-slammed Sahuaro coach Mark Chandler to the ground.
“There have to be consequences; sometimes sideline behavior is disgusting,” Schmidt says. “Beginning now, we are going to hold parents accountable.”
In a piece of long-overdue legislation, the PCJSL, which has more than 400 teams for boys and girls ages 6-19, will no longer allow uncivil behavior by parents or players. Schmidt believes it will be a template that will ultimately be adopted by junior baseball, softball, lacrosse and football organizations nationally.
Why didn’t someone do this 25 years ago?
The PCJSL, as sanctioned by the Arizona Youth Soccer Association, will no longer tolerate verbal abuse from parents or players. In partnership with the Ben’s Bells kindness-education project, Pima County’s enormous youth soccer organization will now be operated on a “Be Kind To The Sidelines” platform.
You don’t think it can be done?
At the PCJSL, all parents and players — more than 10,000 people — will be required to sign a five-part Code of Conduct form: no profanity, no insulting opponents, no talking to referees, no obscene gestures, no verbal abuse of coaches.
A uniformed field marshal will patrol the sidelines at games. A first violation will result in dismissal from the grounds and mandatory viewing of a Ben’s Bells video. A second violation will be a fine of $250. A third violation will be a $500 fine and a year’s suspension from all PCJSL soccer activities, payable by the spectator’s child’s team.
At every game, a “THIS IS A BE KIND ZONE” sign will be prominently displayed.
“If our pilot program works, it will expand to the whole state,” Schmidt says. “We believe it will make a difference in the first year, and ultimately be a national program.”
It sounds too good to be true.
Schmidt and his PCJSL officers, coach Charlie McCabe, referee commissioner Larry Luckett and referee assigner Maggie Barton, have spent six months putting teeth into their soccer behavior policies.
It was triggered by the most uncomplicated issue: Verbal abuse and intimidation from parents and players have made it difficult to find enough referees to work the PCJSL season. During the peak soccer season, the district needs as many as 360 referees per weekend.
“So many of our referees have told me, ‘I love soccer, but I can’t deal with the parents any longer,’” Schmidt said. “So they quit. We had to fight back.”
Part of the PCJSL initiative is to reward referees. All coaches will privately grade referees on a 1-to-5 scale after each game. If the coaches don’t do so, they will be dismissed. In a rewards-points type of system, each referee will earn, say, an extra $50 when they get to a certain level of points.
Referees earning the highest scores will be given patches to wear on their officiating gear. A year-end awards ceremony will honor others. A program to recruit new referees will begin.
“It’s long overdue,” said Weber, who is the head boys soccer coach at Salpointe Catholic and a coach-board member of the powerful Tucson Soccer Academy. “Over the last seven or eight years, I’ve noticed a deterioration in the way parents behave. We’ve got to make people understand it’s a game, and not something you take so personal.”
If this works, if more than 5,500 Tucson soccer players and their parents can play in harmony, the Pima County Junior Soccer League will become a national trendsetter.
Fun? Yes. Loutish behavior? Hit the road.