I felt a swell of emotion when I received the notification. I had been assigned to officiate a big girls’ high school soccer game between two rivals in Greater Boston. I was excited, proud, humbled, and anxious. The fact that I was chosen meant that someone believed I had what it took to be on the field for this match.
I stood a little taller that day, and I spent hours poring over the rules and checking with colleagues on issues that had come up earlier in the season. Even though I’d been officiating for close to 10 years, I wanted to be prepared. I wanted to let everyone know I was worthy of the call. I wanted to win the day.
We all do this, to one degree or another. Not everyone is ready for a top assignment, but almost everyone who signs on to officiate a game has an intrinsic appreciation for what’s at stake. Most of us are athletes many years removed from playing the game, but the fire that was lit so long ago still burns bright.
This wasn’t going to be just any game. Because of the rivalry and the strength of the teams, it was going to be a statement game. I felt the seriousness of the coaches in their tone and body language as they warmed up their teams, and I saw the players absorb their intensity.
From the first whistle, the players’ nervous energy drove clumsy, careless mistakes. My partner and I immediately called those fouls to set the tone. Yet hard fouls were met with harder fouls, and I knew just 10 minutes into the game that we would be issuing cards.
As it turned out, the game was all too typical. The coaches became increasingly vocal. They appeared to see with great clarity the fouls their opponents committed, but they were incapable of seeing why fouls were assessed against their teams. The fans followed suit and seemed to make it their mission to let us know we were failing.
Worst of all, the players, just as they had absorbed their coaches’ intensity in warm-ups, began to echo the dissent they heard shouted from all sides of their field. We were losing them, both sides now believing that not only were we unqualified to be part of their game but that we didn’t care about them or their safety.
This was a false — and very dangerous — assumption. It would make managing the game nearly impossible. Misplays and mistakes were our fault, not the players’ fault, and rather than take responsibility and find a way to win, they blamed us, missing the most important lessons the game has to offer.
Cards were shown as tempers flared, and I couldn’t wait to be done with this game.
In games like these, I walk off the field with a broken heart. I want to tell those girls that I’m one of them, that every time I step onto the field, my 16-year-old self steps out there with me. I want their coaches to know this too, and their parents and their fans.
I see the resentment in their faces when they arrive for the postgame handshake and I feel their anger as they fist-bump me with a little more force than what’s appropriate. I let it go because they’re kids and I know why they act this way.
I saw it start to happen the moment I stepped on their field. I saw it in the way their role models refused to honor their responsibility and hold them accountable for their own mistakes and instead blame me. It was enough to break my heart — and led to my decision to stop officiating high school soccer.