There were the players leaving the soccer pit, running after their parents and yelling, “Dad, Mom, my prom is tomorrow night. I don’t want you to go to jail!”
There were also the two men who began punching one another on the field as more parents joined in on the rumble, amid pleas of a child yelling in the background, “No, stop! Stop it! Stop it!”
And there was the basketball game brawl in Philadelphia where a group of adults rushed to the court and pummeled the ref until the teenage players themselves physically stepped in to stop the fighting.
Sports referee Brian Barlow has seen it all — either in person or on video — and has had enough. He’s the man behind a growing Facebook page titled Offside, and his message is simple: If you have video of parents behaving badly at a youth sports event, he’ll pay you $100 for it. That video will then go on Offside — to the amusement, scathing ridicule and dissatisfaction (or perhaps satisfaction) of his more than 31,000 followers.
“Listen, all I’m trying to do is get people to understand, when you end up on one of my videos on Offside, you look like an idiot. Everyone knows you look like an idiot, you know you look like an idiot,” explains Barlow in a Yahoo News “Unfiltered” episode. “I am just simply trying to make people aware: Don’t take yourself there. Change your behavior beforehand. It’s a game.”
A former soccer player, Barlow had to make a tough call when a knee injury and several surgeries left him unable to play. Wanting to stay involved with the sport, he decided to become a referee for youth games. Eighteen years later, the attitudes of parents whom he dubs “cheeseburgers” have been fouling not just his experience on the field, but also that of the young players and referees. “Ninety-eight percent of the parents that are out watching these sporting events are supportive … cheering and loving their kid, and doing all the things you’re supposed to do,” he clarifies. “It’s the 2 percent that are causing all the chaos and the toxic to enter our game.” To Barlow, a “cheeseburger” is the latter 2 percent: “It’s typically the person sitting in the chair, eating the hot dog, eating the cheeseburger, drinkin’ the drink, in the shade.”
Barlow’s first brush with “cheeseburgers” was early in his officiating career at a children’s soccer game with players under the age of 10. Unruly parents on both sides of the field were verbally harassing each other, and the coaches were starting to become physically aggressive. He recounts, “I’m in the middle, and I start hearing curse words. And I’m not affected by curse words, but I see the players. And the players are now not just playing soccer, but they’re looking over at their parents and their coaches.” As the situation became more intense, Barlow yelled out to the crowd, “What are you guys doing? This is a kids’ game. You guys are acting like children. Let the kids play!” That made the situation worse: After he warned the adults not to continue yelling lest he abandon the match, one parent told him to “f*** off.” That’s when Barlow ended the game: “I told the kids, ‘Sorry about this, kids. This game’s over.’ As he walked away, parents and coaches followed behind, yelling insults and threats. “That’s when I realized I was either an idiot for becoming a referee or there was a real issue. I think it’s both.”
“Whenever I was growing up, sports was there to teach us integrity. It was there to teach us and to understand how sometimes when you get knocked down, you gotta get back up. When you don’t get the whistle, you gotta overcome adversity. … The parents don’t teach that. They wanna win at all costs, and they will behave deplorably at all costs too.”
For Barlow, the vitriol from the adults on the field was palpable — but, he says, it’s even worse for youth referees. “The younger games in youth sports are literally the most difficult to ref,” Barlow says. “Because every single game is the World Cup. Mom and Dad’s there, aunts and uncles are there, grandmas and grandpas are there, and they want little Sally and little Sammy to score. … And then, when it’s jeopardized and that moment doesn’t look like it’s happening, we get angry. And then we have to start blaming somebody.”
With two of his own teenage children working as referees, Barlow has sat on the sidelines and witnessed adults berating his own kids for making a call. In one such incident, his 13-year-old daughter was harassed by roughly 150 parents who were upset by how the game was being officiated. “We’re asking the referees not just to be a referee and understand how to officiate the game, but now we’re asking those referees to be therapists for adults,” he says. “We’re asking 14-, 15-, 16-, 17-year-old referees to not just blow the whistle, but to say, ‘Hey, I need you to calm down.’ … That’s asking a lot for a youth referee who’s already in a very intimidat[ing] environment.”
What Barlow is seeing aren’t anomalies, but the norm: According to the National Association of Sports Officials, adult conflicts on the field can be so upsetting that they are the main reason behind low youth referee recruitment numbers. An additional study from the organization also found that youth game referees have an unusually high turnover rate, with 80 percent of young officials quitting before their third year of reffing.
“I started watching the younger referees, the inexperienced referees … assessing how they were managing, and understanding that they were having real issues. And that’s when I thought, ‘You know, at some point somebody’s gonna have to do something.’”
One day, a friend sent Barlow a video of a mother lashing out at a child referee during a soccer game. The clip shows a middle-aged woman arguing with and cursing at the young official, culminating with kicking a soccer ball at the young official’s head. “I posted that video [online] and I said, ‘This is absolutely unnecessary. If you capture a video like this and you send it to me, I’m gonna give you $100.’”
That’s how Barlow created the Offside Facebook page, which aims to shame disruptive parents at youth sporting games by posting videos of their outbursts. Since its inception 14 months ago, the page has amassed over a million total video views. It is now part of Barlow’s Stop Tormenting Officials Permanently initiative, also known as #STOP. “Almost every single day we continue to get videos of people behaving badly on the sideline of a youth sporting event.” Barlow has so far received approximately 5,000 videos from all over the world, including Australia and Great Britain.
Although his page has garnered a lot of attention and convinced some of the featured “cheeseburger” parents that they need to change their ways, some have criticized Barlow’s shaming approach and others believe his practice of paying for videos promotes more instances of violent behavior than it prevents.
“There are other people that think there’s a better solution. There are other people that think that you don’t have to shame people on video. Listen, I’m all ears. … In fact, if you have a better idea, do it. All I care about is, what are you doing to hold people accountable when they step onto your competitive playing field? Are you setting an expectation? Are you holding them accountable? And then, are you resolving the problem when it happens?”
Having confronted several “cheeseburgers” himself, Barlow has a message for them: “If you’re so good at foul selection, if you’re so great as an official even though you’re sitting down in the shade, drinkin’ your drink, eatin’ your food … go get your badge. Go get your certification. Go show the world how great of an official you are, because I guarantee you, I guarantee you this, when the pressure is on and when you’re in the middle of a highly competitive game having to make a highly controversial decision in 103 degrees, after 90 minutes of play … until you can get the uniform on and put the badge on, I don’t wanna hear your voice. You don’t have the whistle. You don’t have the badge. Take a seat.”
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