My good friend and CITATIONS editorial board member, Panda Kroll, has been after me for a few years to write an article about youth sports. I guess she figured, as a 30-year American youth Soccer Organization volunteer, four-year past AYSO national president and six-year member of the United States Soccer Federation rules Committee, I might have some insights to share. Procrastination being what it is, Panda still might be waiting for the article.

However, you may have seen the Associated Press article in the Ventura County Star on May 8 about the growing epidemic of violence directed toward sports referees, including the recent death of a Utah youth soccer referee punched in the face by a 17-year-old player. No one deserves to die just for doing something that is so important for youth development.

The article quotes Dan Gould, Director of the Institute for the Study of youth Sports at Michigan State: “Part of this isn’t a sport problem, part of it is a societal problem.” I agree. More on that later.

One of the most fun parts of my youth sports experience was refereeing. you see great soccer games from the best seat in the house. you get exercise perhaps four miles or more running per game for a center referee. you get to participate in the best part of get to participate in the best part of  youth sports, helping to teach skills and instill values players can use for the rest of their lives. And you satisfy what many have called “polyester envy” – making important and impartial rulings about participants’ behavior relative to the laws while wearing polyester. remind you of another group of people we lawyers deal with all the time?

Personally, I never really had many problems from the sidelines. Once people found out, usually about ten minutes into the match, that it was being refereed by AySO’s national president, every camper was a quiet one, if not a happy one. There was one time, however, when I was being heckled by a parent on the sideline. I let the game go on but stopped right next to him and watched for about 30 seconds. “you know, you’re right,” I said. “you really can see the game better from here.” Play on!

There was one tournament where three of us were teamed to referee three games that day, each one doing a center. We gave the toughest to Cookie. She was the best. Before kickoff, each team did their sideline cheers. Cookie then called her two Ars (assistant referees) into the center and said we were going to do a cheer, too:

“One, two, three, we’re the referees, “Peaches, apples, pears, this game’s gonna be fair.”

Explained Cookie: “We’re a team, too, aren’t we?”

I also believe that the AySO tradition of all-volunteer coaches and referees helped reduce referee abuse. It has been observed that, when people pay officials, they assume that with the payment comes the right to

criticize them, which leads to yelling at them, which in too many cases leads ultimately to abuse. When instead you “pay” for referees by volunteering to be one yourself, you have an entirely different attitude about how they should be treated. And, often times, the referee for one day’s match would be last year’s coach or a neighbor.

Beyond refereeing, there are many benefits for the players. Statistics have proven, for instance, that children who participate in youth sports have a much lower incidence of obesity, and that young girls who participate have a lower rate of female-related cancers in later life.

What really convinced me about the benefits of youth sports was when my youngest turned 21 and we went to kips, a bar in Berkeley where I had bought my first legal beer upon turning 21. It hadn’t changed.

The soles of your shoes still stuck to the floor as you walked to the bar, and you still could order the best wine a box could hold.

As we stood waiting for a table, this absolutely gorgeous young woman rushed up and hugged me. My wife, leslie, immediately started with that daggers look. The young woman finally let go, took a step back and said: “Don’t you remember me?”

With leslie’s eyes now growing from daggers to javelins, I looked into the woman’s eyes and blurted: “katie?” Could the woman who was all grown up possibly be the awkward 13-year-old girl I had coached? “That’s right, Coach,” said katie.

We talked for a while about what she had been doing over the years and how her family was. As we ended, she said: “you know, Coach, I always have been meaning to thank you.”

“Why?” I asked. “I was a terrible coach.”

“We all knew that, Coach, but it is for the other things you helped give me.”

She explained that, at the time, her parents were going through a divorce, and she was not doing well in school as a result. She was drifting downhill. But, her youth sports experience was enjoyable and, as she looked back, she had come to realize that it had given her something to center her life around until the other parts of her life got better. I hugged her back, with Leslie’s blessing.

That’s the thing about youth sports. You never know at the time just how much value you deliver to young lives. you just have to have faith that, despite all other indications, it is something worth doing. And, you have to have the integrity and dedication to understand that something that important has to be done right and to the best of your ability.

And now, the part that is the societal problem. As Dodger Matt Kemp showed us a bit ago with a generous act for a cancerstricken  fan when Kemp thought the cameras were off, there still is much good about organized sports. However, although I am an avid sports fan, these days I mostly concentrate on amateur sports (well, if you call college sports “amateur,” I suppose). I am not interested in paying $12 for a beer and $11 for a hot dog so a team like the Dodgers can pay $22 million to someone who hits only .225 and thinks it is not only a right but an obligation to throw dirt on the umpire. There is no defending soccer on this issue either. Just ask any soccer hooligan.

I think the issue is that fewer of us are doing what we used to do to teach our children about personal responsibility. The trend now seems to go more toward teaching them how to blame others instead of looking within.

The recent movie “42” showed us how someone who could have rightfully blamed others for his challenges instead took personal responsibility for being the best he could be despite the shortcomings of others.

In comparison, I recalled a father years ago who accused us of discrimination because his son did not make an all-star team. I  explained he did not make the team because he was a sweeper (the last defender except the goalkeeper) on the team that had given up 11 more goals than any other team. I then offered him a position on my board as “Diversity Officer.” I never heard from him again.

Why does this President’s Message relate to lawyers? I think that we must recognize that we are on the front lines for teaching about taking personal responsibility, and about respect for laws and for those who administer them. As I said, no one deserves to die for trying to do that.

Joel Mark is the managing partner at Nordman Cormany Hair & Compton LLP, in Oxnard. Cookie Oren succumbed to cancer a couple of years after that match. Look in any dictionary for “best youth sports official ever” and you will see her picture. 

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