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Confessions of a (maybe, mildly) crazy sports dad

Referees aren't perfect -- and neither are parents.

Zenon Nark, right, is clearly being held in this youth soccer game in South Jersey last year
Zenon Nark, right, is clearly being held in this youth soccer game in South Jersey last yearRead moreProvided

My son took the ball at midfield, bolted up the line and blew past the defender, all grass between him and the goalie. Everyone saw what happened next. Our coaches were yelling. Parents were screaming. A mom on the opposing team cringed and laughed. She saw it. I remember her smug little face.

Only the referees missed the defender grab my son’s jersey and drag him down in the box. I said something I shouldn’t have. I mean, I yelled it.

“You’ve got to be [insert that word] kidding me. Everyone saw that but you!”

People were shocked. The game was in Moorestown.

I was reminded of my outburst a few weeks ago, at a soccer tournament in South Jersey, when I saw some friendly reminders posted by the snack stand. They were harmless enough. No, they were great. But … if the referees, who are getting paid, mind you, are human, then so are parents like me who occasionally lose their cool.

An editor of mine saw the photo I took of that sign on social media. New to youth sports, she asked me about “crazy sports parents," whether I could write up some feelings about it.

Oh no.

I almost tried to back out of it, for fear of revealing myself, my flawed nature. Asked if I was a crazy sports dad, my ex-wife answered, “Yes!!!” My new wife, unfamiliar with me at a wrestling match, said “I don’t think so.” And then: “Yes, kind of.” Maybe she remembered the first time she heard me scream “KICK THE BALL” in her ear.

“I do not understand or relate to the passion you have about sports," she said. “I think sports are an extra little thing that people can do to build character and can be really good for you, but it should not be the only thing.”

Let me get this out of the way. There are people worse than me. Stories abound across the country of out-of-control parents hitting one another, attacking referees, or even assaulting players. I’ve never assaulted anyone, physically, but I’ve seen it.

"Sometimes I have to intercede and tell these parents that it’s not the World Cup, and remind them that the players are 6 years old and the ref is 12,” an Oklahoma referee’s wife told the New York Times last year.

When I played football, organized street hockey, or wrestled when I was a kid, I don’t recall any adults fighting or getting thrown out of an event. An older Rutgers study even suggested that parental “sports rage” was hyped by us, the media.

“I mean, everyone complained about refs," my dad said, “but it’s not like it is today.”

Larry Young, president of the South Jersey Soccer League, agreed. He blames “spectators and coaches who are living out their dreams." That’s a common explanation for bad parental behavior. He said parents aren’t educated on the rules, particularly if the children are younger and newer to the sport.

Even worse, Young said, is that younger referees are often in charge of those games, teenagers, who are getting ridiculed by parents.

“We just discussed it as our last meeting, and it will be a major topic of conversation at the next one,” Young told me.

Despite my behavior at that one soccer game, I’m usually subdued or speak directly to my son. Since I don’t know much about the sport, I might be the third or fourth person to complain about an offsides call, never the first. I don’t argue when my son gets a yellow card, either, because he usually tells me he’s going to get one. My daughter’s field hockey team? I just cheer her name. I doubt she can hear me above all the referee whistles.

Wrestling, on the other hand, has wreaked havoc on my vocal chords. I’ve seen one coach punch another square in the head on the mats, and police escort moms out of the gym. When I coached, a family once berated me because I didn’t tell their son, maybe 8 or 9, that he was wrestling a girl. They didn’t realize it until she took off her headgear and her long blonde hair fell to her shoulders. He lost.

There’s people here at The Inquirer who have never heard my voice, let alone hear me raise it. Turn up the volume on this video of my oldest son in a high school playoff match, though. You might notice the referee from the news. You’ll hear my dad and me, two madmen. Wear headphones. It’s almost embarrassing, but I still get chills watching.

It was his last win and I love the sport. I miss it.

In my conversation with Young, the soccer league president, I told him about the outburst the previous year at my son’s game, but I held fast to my belief that the ref blew the call. I even had a photo to prove it.

“I’m just not sure what else he would have been looking at, besides the player with the ball,” I told him. “But, I get it, people make mistakes.”

A few days after we spoke, my son played a miserable game in a downpour in Cherry Hill. Young happened to be the assistant referee that day. Our team got killed, and on the sidelines, in the rain, so did the referees.