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No more ‘cheeseburgers’

Local referee launches campaign to improve adult behavior at youth sports events

Brian Barlow

Greg Bollinger

Brian Barlow, a youth soccer referee from Broken Arrow, has become something of a minor celebrity. Things really started taking off last July when The New York Times published a story about him, followed by numerous appearances on TV news segments and newspaper articles, all covering his crusade to eliminate verbal and physical harassment of officials at youth sports events.

Barlow started a Facebook page called “Offside” examining the problem. He posts videos of parents and coaches berating referees for all the world to see, with the hope that exposing the behavior of verbally abusive grown-ups (whom he calls “cheeseburgers”) will make others think twice before causing a scene.

“We’re making a bold statement by offering $100 for people to capture videos of referee abuse, whether it’s verbal or physical,” Barlow said. “I think that’s the ‘wow’ factor, but I will say the awareness has grown to where now I can walk around—it can be in Denver, [. . .] Seattle, Chicago, Tulsa—somebody’s going to stop me and say, ‘Hey, I love what you’re doing on the site,’ or ‘Hey, I’m not a cheeseburger anymore!’ I would say it’s definitely got some legs now.”

Barlow has also launched a program called Stop Tormenting Officials Permanently (STOP), which sells signs for youth sports organizations and facilities—for any sport—to put up on their premises.

“It’s visual accountability for clubs and organizations,” said Barlow, who has sunk about $45,000 of his own money into his referee website endeavors. “It’s an expectation of, ‘We are aware of what you’re capable of. We don’t tolerate it. These are the boundaries. If you stay within the boundaries, you’re going to be fine, and if you don’t, you’re out of here.’ It’s gone well. I get a ton of positive feedback on it.”

The signs include slogans such as, “Warning! Screaming at officials not allowed!” and, “Caution! Players playing, coaches coaching, officials officiating—mistakes will be made, stay calm.” Other signs warn that anyone yelling at an official will be removed from the spectator area.

For those who aren’t frequent visitors to a youth sports sideline, the conduct of parents and coaches can be shocking, especially considering that games for younger kids feature referees as young as 12 years old. Barlow recently met with a 17-year-old referee in El Paso who suffered a concussion and a fractured orbital bone after being assaulted by a 35-year-old man coaching a soccer team of nine-year-olds. Barlow also visited the family of John Bieniewicz, a ref in Detroit who died in 2014 after he was attacked during a game by an adult soccer player who was about to be penalized with a red card.

That kind of behavior has fed a vicious cycle that has seen more and more officials quit because they no longer want to endure the abuse that comes with the job. Fewer officials means the ones that remain are sometimes overworked and more prone to make mistakes. The inexperienced replacements will make more errors while learning. It just perpetuates the problem.

“We have more games than ever before and less officials,” Barlow said. “The state of Michigan lost 400 referees after the Bieniewicz incident, 80 percent of them youth referees. It all comes full circle. Everybody wants the best referees, everybody wants fresh referees, and everyone wants the referee to be perfect on their match and it just is never going to happen—especially if we don’t change our behavior.”

Barlow points out that even though officiating will never be perfect, that is just one of the lessons that youth sports teaches the players.

“You’re going to get bad calls. The ref’s going to miss stuff,” Barlow said. “We’re human beings. It isn’t about the perfectly-officiated game. It’s about how to teach Little Sammy and Little Sally how to get up off the ground when they get pushed down, how they keep going whenever they don’t get the whistle. That’s the true innocence of youth sports—how to overcome adversity, winning with dignity, losing with grace.”

Since starting his websites and calling out adults for unacceptable behavior, Barlow is continually updated of new incidents across the U.S. and beyond. But he also sees that slowly but surely, progress is being made.

“All over the country, there’s a serious issue,” he said. “I’m just trying to change that behavior by making people look like idiots on video on my website. And so far, it’s working. I do see a glimmer of hope.”

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