Two Massachusetts high school soccer players repeatedly shoved an official Tuesday after a boys’ tournament game, highlighting the kind of abuse that has contributed to a shortage of school game officials across the state and nation.
According to eyewitness accounts and video footage reviewed by the Globe, the two players, from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, struck and shoved the official after their team was eliminated from the tournament by Norwell High School, 1-0, on a penalty kick with less than 15 seconds left in regulation time.
The players, both juniors, have been suspended from participating in all high school sports for a year by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, which governs postseason tournaments.
“We have the highest level of concern about this inappropriate behavior,’’ MIAA communications director Tara Bennett said.
Martha’s Vineyard athletic director Mark McCarthy said the school also has taken “appropriate disciplinary action’’ against the players. He said he could not disclose the punishment because of student privacy rights.
“We take this very seriously,’’ McCarthy said. “We don’t want people to think because of this one incident that this is what we do.’’
Martha’s Vineyard school officials will appear Tuesday before a hearing of the MIAA’s soccer and sportsmanship committees to address the matter. The school does not plan to appeal the one-year suspensions.
The Vineyard team entered the game in Norwell, against the top-ranked and unbeaten Clippers, as the 17th seed in the MIAA’s Division 3 South sectionals. As the final seconds of a hard-fought match ticked away, a Vineyard player was called for deliberately handling the ball. Norwell was awarded a penalty kick and scored the decisive goal, ending Martha’s Vineyard’s season.
As the Norwell players exulted, the official who made the hotly contested call began walking off the field when a Vineyard player struck him in the back with a left jab. The official kept walking, and less than four seconds later a second Vineyard player sprinted toward him and thumped him with his body.
Still, the official kept walking. A moment later, the first player who had struck him shoved him even harder in the back, causing him to stumble forward, though he remained on his feet.
Within seconds, school administrators rushed to separate the players from the official.
In a brief interview with the Globe, the official asked not to be identified because of possible retribution and concern that his career could be defined by the incident. He has officiated Massachusetts high school soccer for 10 years.
“I was very shocked by it,’’ he said. “I tried to handle it very calmly and cooly in the moment. It didn’t settle in until later that night what actually happened, and I said, ‘OK, this is serious.’ ’’
He said he realized then that “it has to be reported to protect my fellow referees if they come across the same players or different ones who act the same way.’’
Bennett said the official “was a bit shaken, understandably,’’ but otherwise uninjured.
No police officers were on duty, and the official has not pressed criminal charges.
Bennett said the one-year suspensions were automatic under MIAA rules because an incident report classified the behavior as assaults. She said the MIAA is not aware of any other poor behavior toward officials during the tournament season.
Matt DeNapoli, who assigned the official to the game, described him as one of the best in the state. He also is certified to officiate college games.
“He made the right call at a critical moment in the game,’’ DeNapoli said. “As an official, you have to take the emotion and the time left in the game out of it. He saw a call, and he made it.’’
McCarthy, who attended the game, said he did not have a clear view of the play that led to the crucial call.
“The official had a better vantage point than anybody, and he made a tough call,’’ McCarthy said. “Emotions were running high at the end, and most of our team behaved appropriately, but these two individuals didn’t.’’
McCarthy wrote letters on behalf of Martha’s Vineyard to the official, Norwell High School, and the MIAA.
“I apologized for the inappropriate behavior and said this is not something we take lightly,’’ he said. “We take sportsmanship very seriously.’’
Norwell athletic director Sean McInnis said, “We appreciate the job these officials do. Without them, we wouldn’t have high school sports.’’
McInnis was one of several athletic directors who contacted the official to express support and encourage him to continue working.
Hingham High School athletic director Jim Quatromoni said he hopes to raise awareness about the challenges officials face and the importance of treating them respectfully.
“Once it’s in an official’s mind that something like this can happen, it can change things,’’ Quatromoni said. “It’s scary.’’
The incident occurred several days after the Globe reported that national high school officials consider abusive treatment of referees an epidemic that is driving a critical shortage of game officials.
A survey last year by the National Association of Sports Officials found that 48 percent of male officials and 45 percent of their female counterparts in Massachusetts have feared for their safety because of the behavior of a spectator, coach, player, or school official.
McInnis pointed out that, despite the misconduct, there were several poignant acts of sportsmanship after the game that were recorded on videotape. They included a Norwell player helping up a distraught Vineyard player and hugging him, as well as the Norwell goalie sprinting across the field to embrace the Vineyard keeper.
The official who was accosted said he was heartened by several Vineyard players who spoke to him after the incident.
“They all apologized to me,’’ he said. “One of them was a referee himself, 17 years of age, and he said that never should have happened. It was a disgrace.’’
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.