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Referees are people too

Have you ever been ejected, as a spectator, from an amateur sports event for being mouthy to the referee? Have you ever seen it happen to anyone else or wished that it had?
Whether you think you, or they, deserved it or not, keep in mind that the ref is not only keeping the playing field civilized, they are making sure that they have a workplace free from harassment, as required by the Occupational Health & Safety Act. 
Even though referees are paid fee for service, cash on the field, they are “workers” like everyone else. The Act defines a worker as anyone who performs work or supplies services for monetary compensation. A “workplace” is any land, premises, or location upon or near which a worker works.
When someone engages in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome, they have engaged in harassment.
The employer, in this circumstance, is the league that pays the referee.
The Ministry of Labour would expect the employer to not only respond appropriately when they received a complaint from a worker about workplace harassment, but also to take pro-active steps to discourage the harassment.
Most amateur leagues these days have a code of conduct for players and spectators but how much are they doing to promote and enforce them? Is it just a policy that appears on the webpage and the packet of materials every player gets? Requiring not only players but their legal guardians, in the case of minors, to sign something acknowledging they have read, understood and agreed to the code of conduct would be a first step.
Referee training in many sports at the amateur level is often quite brief. Proper training for referees, especially children under the age of 18 that are refereeing, on how to deal with belligerent spectators is important.
It’s one thing for a 15-year-old referee to caution or discipline a player whose mouth is getting out of hand. Ejecting a 45-year-old adult from the facility or field, perhaps one they know from the neighbourhood, can take more courage than many kids have yet developed at that age. If they do gather up that courage and make the right call, they need to feel supported by the league executives and coaches.
It does get complicated. Those executives and the coaches are all volunteers. When one of them loses their cool and starts ridiculing a referee, it’s even harder for the ref to go against the people that she feels are her employer.
I’ve been told by people who have spent many hours on soccer fields that the worst parents, the ones that get so passionate about the game they forget they are supposed to be the adults, are those of the 10 to 12-year-old kids. I’ve heard stories of coaches screaming at referees and correcting them on calls and even one telling an underage referee to f-off. Another about an underage referee who missed a serious call because he didn’t see it having to leave the field quickly because the parents were turning into a mob.
It’s true that there will always be idiots who have no concept of the example they are setting for their children by being verbally aggressive with referees. We let anyone have kids. But that will not excuse employers (amateur leagues) from pro-actively trying to work against it and supporting refs when they take action as a result of harassment. Maybe it’s not good enough for adults to stand silently by while a 17-year-old is verbally abused by a parent or coach. Maybe we should not console ourselves with the idea that it’s the ref’s business and they can kick them out if they want to. While parents on the sidelines have no legal obligation under the Occupational Health & Safety Act to try to discourage abusers, they certainly have a moral one.
As published in The Hamilton Spectator, October 3, 2011
Ed Canning
Ed Canning
P: 905.572.5809