High school soccer in Utah has a problem and there are no easy answers on how to fix it.
As of this past Monday, 117 boys’ soccer players had been ejected in games this season.
That compares to 31 ejections in baseball, 26 in boys’ basketball, four in girls’ basketball, 54 in football, 31 in girls’ soccer, six in softball, one in volleyball and nine in wrestling.
Why so many soccer ejections in a sport that the Utah High School Activities Association has put on probation in the past?
Todd Hyer, who has refereed high school soccer for 29 years, has some theories.
First of all, the game is difficult to officiate. There are controversies even at the World Cup level. Part of the reason, says Hyer, is that the rules give officials wide latitude in deciding how to manage a game by calling or not calling certain types of contact.
“You have to rely on the experience and the judgment of the official when contact is appropriate,” said the veteran official. “High school players know they have been fouled. They want justice now. They have a hard time seeing what the referees are supposed to be seeing. They don’t care if a team is making a valid attack. They want justice and sometimes take justice into their own hands. They get into trouble when they immediately react.”
Part of this is the physical nature of the game. Teenage boys are bigger, stronger and more physical every year. In soccer, they play a fast-paced game with minimal protections. Add to that what Hyer calls “developing brains swamped with testosterone” and it is easy for players to react to a situation without thinking, an act that often leads to an ejection.
Unlike basketball or football, where a coach or official can call timeout to calm an athlete, there are no timeouts in soccer. Late in the game, players can easily get tired, careless and irritable.
“If an official is managing the game, there are instances where you can see a player that is becoming agitated,” said Hyer. “The official in some instances has the ability to talk to players, too. … But in a soccer games, you don’t always have the ability to stop things and talk to a player or a coach. In some instances, I’ve gone to a coach and said, ‘No. 12 is thinking he is going to referee this game. Do you want to take care of that or should I?’”
The veteran referee said that officials, fans and players are in such close proximity to each other that it is virtually impossible for a referee not to hear an insult or a protest by a player.
Soccer fouls are often called when the foul denies a team an obvious goal scoring opportunity. Where a pass interference call in football or a goaltending call in basketball might be cause for a protest, they rarely result in an ejection.
“Sometimes these young players tend to be walking along the cliff edge all the time,” Hyer said. “It doesn’t take much to push them over the edge. When they go over …, they grab everybody they can and take them down with them.”
Hyer said that when the sport was put on probation by the UHSAA in 2008, there were sportsmanship meetings with officials, athletic directors and coaches. Working together, ejections dropped the next year, stayed fairly even for a few years, but have been slowly creeping up again.
Parents can play a key role in talking to their sons. They know the pressures their children are facing, often more than coaches and certainly more than referees.
“Parents are a vital component to this,” said Hyer. “The need to be able to talk with their child and say, ‘Maybe we disagree with the ref’s decision, but the soccer field is an extension of the classroom. You wouldn’t do that with a teacher without getting suspended. A referee in high school sports is just like a teacher.’”
Hyer said he does not know a single referee who enjoys giving red cards to a player, but they are bound to follow the rules.
“They do what they feel like they have to do to manage the game and the players,” he said. “Some refs manage games differently than others. … There are plenty of times when I have taken the time to say, ‘What else can I do besides disqualify this player?’ But they just don’t give you a chance a lot of times. When they fall off that cliff, there is no dragging them back.”
And, as the Class 4A and 5A state tournaments approach, it’s obvious from the numbers that too many Utah high school soccer players are falling off that cliff.