Canadian football referee crisis: A shortage leaves leagues scrambling

Thousands of match officials have turned away from grassroots football in Ontario since the start of the pandemic, and the county director says the “crisis” they left behind can be traced back to a culture that has long condoned verbal abuse of referees from coaches and parents.

Johnny Maesley, chief executive of Ontario Soccer, said the organization is dealing with an astonishing drop that has led to staffing adjustments in competitive-level games, while some parents have left volunteers to manage their children in entry-level competition.

In 2019, Maisley said 8,500 field officials were registered with the county board of directors. As of this week, he said, there were 4,846, or just over half the number who signed up for work before the coronavirus brought leagues and clubs to a halt.

“It has forced us, as a sports ecosystem, to look at our sport and not consider that match officials or referees will return every year,” he said.

Maisley said about 400,000 players are registered in Ontario Soccer, ranging from kids learning to play to competitive broadcasts and adult leagues. He hasn’t heard of any cancellations of the game, saying “we’re trying to be flexible in how to adapt to the lack of officials.”

Micely said the older officials tended to say they were leaving the game because, after a year and a half or two off the field, they simply felt it was time to move on. They said they found other ways to fill their time and didn’t feel like returning to the field.

In comments on the Ontario soccer team, younger officials often give a different reason for leaving.

“They see that, for the last year and a half and two years, they haven’t been yelled at,” Micely said. They were not harassed, nor were they abused. And they know they don’t miss it.”

Tracy Vilancourt is Canada Research Chair in School Mental Health and Violence Prevention, as well as a Professor in the School of Education at the University of Ottawa. She said behavior on the sidelines of the football field is not tolerated in other areas of society.

“I can’t imagine someone chasing a 15-year-old McDonald’s employee into the parking lot and scolding them for not having pickles in their burger,” she said. “However in our sport it happens all the time. It happens in all the sports where there are officials.”

Vilancourt is also a top-level football coach.

“I’m not saying I was the most perfect citizen when it came to the officials,” she said. “I never remember ever offending a young man’s judgment—and if I had, oh my God, shame on me.”

In partnership with the Ontario Soccer Team and a team of experts, it hopes to launch a study next season on the long-term impact that serving as a soccer referee can have on a teenager. It would track officials in Ontario and Saskatchewan – only the latter with a zero-tolerance policy for official abuse – for three years and track changes to their mental or physical health.

After each match, officials fill out a summary form through an app on their phones, detailing whether the game involved any abuse (verbal or physical) and whether it came from a spectator, coach, parents or players.

“I bet, in every game, they get at least one bad comment on them,” Vilancourt said. “There will never be a perfect game where there is no swipe pass on them.”

Game officials have left many youth sports since the start of the pandemic, and in the United States as well as Canada. Speaking to fellow hockey players, Micely said, “They’re experiencing the same crisis.”

Hockey Canada had 33,000 officials on the ice in its last season before the pandemic, but only managed about 16,000 as restrictions began to ease across the country. There have been numerous reports across many counties of matches being lost due to the inability to secure a referee.

“Teams, players and coaches are all excited to be back – everyone showed up, full force ahead of us,” said Dan Hanumansingh, Managing Director of Hockey Canada. the athlete last fall. “We don’t see the same urgency from many of our officials at this moment.”

Reports of a football referee shortage have surfaced across Canada this year. In Windsor, Ontario, CTV reported that the pool of available officials has fallen to around 150, down from levels that hovered around 300 before the pandemic. (“Games in which three officials must participate will only have one,” coach Wayne Sharp told news outlets. “And there will be some coach referees who may have a parent (or coach) to do these matches.”)

In Manitoba, officials are reported to be planning to form a so-called Governors Task Force. According to CBC, the Calgary Minor Football League is issuing blue jerseys to first-year referees in the hope that coaches and parents would be more forgiving if they knew a junior official is on the field.

“It’s been decades upon decades and we’ve been working, in the various sports I’ve worked in, to address the abuse of officials,” said Maisley. “And it seems that, no matter what any sports organization tries to do, nothing seems to work.”

He said the Ontario soccer team plans to examine policy changes, including tougher disciplinary measures in the event of abuse by officials.

Misley said incentives are being put in place to attract new match officials into the fold. He said that working on the field is a way to earn a little extra money, but it’s also a way to stay in shape and keep in touch with the game.

Of the 4,846 registered to work with Ontario Soccer this year, Micely said about 2,000 are entirely new officials. Part of the presentation revolves around the “duty of care,” telling new recruits that they will be “protected” when they are in the field.

“Without referees, you can’t play a match,” he said. “This is certainly a concern for future growth, that we retain trained referees, and that they become skilled as practitioners as they age and mature.”

(Photo: Kim Clement/USA Today)

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