Ontario Soccer is introducing body cameras to curb ref abuse, but some say culture change starts with adults
'Maybe it's step four, step five of a broader solution, but we're sort of missing step one and two,' says ref
Adrian Tanjala has faced a lot of abuse since starting his soccer refereeing career at 15. But nothing could compare to what the 21-year-old had to deal with in 2021, when a fight broke out in an under-18 match he was reffing.
"I'm putting [my red card] back in my pocket and before I can turn around, both teams have just sort of converged at the fight," he told The Current's Matt Galloway. "Everyone's fighting everyone. I'm getting hit several times."
"Parents, they've come from the bleachers onto the field — you'd think they'd pull the kids away from the fight. They're not doing that. They're actually participating in the fight themselves."
With the situation out of control, Tanjala left the pitch and headed toward his car — but not without a crowd of players and parents following him, yelling obscenities and blaming him for the fight.
Tanjala was just 19 years old then. He's now the head referee of North Toronto Soccer Club, but he said that abuse put him on the brink of quitting the profession.
"I cried in the car for an hour … once I made it home," he said. "Then I sent out a few emails to try and see what we can do, how we can deal with reporting it. But it was very disturbing."
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Tanjala didn't have a way to deal with the incident then, but Ontario Soccer is introducing a new tool it hopes will curb that behaviour in the future. As part of its effort to tackle aggressive behaviour and abuse at games toward referees, Ontario Soccer has announced a pilot project that will see some of officials wear body cameras during matches.
The project is in partnership with Reveal Media, which will provide Ontario Soccer with 50 cameras to use in both youth and adult soccer matches, starting in July.
"We're taking an initiative here, along with a few tactics, to try to go beyond signage and education and start to have a zero-tolerance approach to this," Johnny Misley, CEO of Ontario Soccer, told As It Happens.
Misley said it will hopefully be a visual deterrent to discourage abuse, and create a record of what happens.
"It's a data-gathering mechanism for us to log these and file these verbal and aggressive behaviours, so that we can deal with our zero-tolerance approach and deal with punishment and discipline," he said.
Tanjala says ensuring accountability is important, as is presenting the realities that referees face to other soccer community members. But, it's only part of the answer.
"I'm going to be very clear and say that the principle of body cams [is] totally reasonable and I agree with it," he said. "But … maybe it's step four, step five of a broader solution, but we're sort of missing step one and two."
Abuse 'doesn't belong here'
According to a 2017 survey of 17,000 American referees by the U.S.-based National Association of Sports Officials, parents and coaches caused nearly 70 per cent of all sportsmanship problems in athletics.
Tanjala isn't surprised by this. He said he regularly received verbal abuse and harassment from adults, including insults about his vision.
"I've been called 'Four Eyes' from adults, and I think that's incredible," he said.
"This is schoolyard bullying behaviour, but it's coming from adults — and importantly, it's coming from parents who you would think would be a little bit more empathetic towards children."
University of Ottawa professor Tracy Vaillancourt, who coaches soccer at the provincial level, says heckling referees is commonplace in the sport— and that's, in part, due to youth sports appearing "more professional that it ever has been."
"I think that we're in a sense copying what's happening at the highest level, and think that it has a place in youth sport, and it doesn't," she told Galloway. "The abuse of referees, even at the highest level, doesn't belong there."
"But certainly, I think parents and coaches think that this matters, that the outcome of these games matter, and yet they really don't in the long run."
Vaillancourt studies the mental health impact of abuse experienced by Canadian soccer referees. She said that violence is "contagious," and if it's accepted in one environment, it could be accepted in another environment.
"This is not the way we can live. We need to be kind to each other. We need to be civil. We need to allow for people to make mistakes and to learn — and it's just not happening."
Changing the culture
Tanjala said that he didn't feel like he was in an environment where it was safe to make mistakes when he was younger.
"I had no one there to support me," he said. "I was on my own at pretty much every game I did."
That's why he thinks part of the answer to stopping abuse in the sport is to create a culture of respect, through enforcing zero-tolerance policies and education.
"Understanding that, yes, we need to be strict, and if individuals are abusive, yes, we need to remove them from those situations," he said. "But when we do that, we can't just tell them, 'well, we've removed you because you're abusive.'"
"We need to try and work with these individuals, get to the root cause of why is it that you're doing this."
For Vaillancourt, that starts with coaches.
"They're role models to the parents, they're role models to the players, and they are the ones who I think set the moral tone for the whole sporting context," she said. "So I think if we clean up the behaviour of coaches, I think we'll see spectators and players follow suit."
And Vaillancourt says harassment of youth referees should be recognized for what it is: "child abuse."
"In the context of the sport, for some reason, it's part of the game," she said. "But we have to change that zeitgeist, that viewpoint, because it really does cause harm."
With files from Katie Geleff and As It Happens. Produced by Samantha Lui and Enza Uda.