Veteran soccer official Brian Barlow of Broken Arrow, Okla., believes a little public shaming is not necessarily a bad thing.
Especially if it results in more civility among fans of youth sports.
And that is precisely the point of his popular ”Offside” Facebook page, which posts videos of coaches, players and parents behaving badly toward referees, especially young officials working the games of the youngest athletes.
These are the officials who too often don’t continue to work after being treated badly, helping to exacerbate an already critical shortage of sports officials nationwide, and Barlow wants the harassment to “STOP” immediately.
He’s built the program around the word “STOP,” an acronym for Stop Tormenting Officials Permanently.
Barlow created the program with his 12-year-old daughter in mind, as she takes her first steps toward becoming an official working in youth sports.
Young Zoe Barlow can testify to the fact that the treatment she receives, even at her level, may be among the worst of the current phenomena. She had a game this past summer where she had to stay inside a building for 90 minutes afterward, at the urging of the tournament director, to protect her from threats from parents. It got so bad that day, the game had to be called.
Her story, depressingly enough, is far too common, as her father has found. Even Barlow’s wife Lori has had to intercede at moments, telling the New York Times that she has to plead with parents to gain some perspective.
“That the players are 6 years old and the referee is 12,” she said.
Because of depressing situations like these, Brian Barlow created his “Offside” page as a safe harbor for his daughter, himself and all their fellow arbiters. He calls it, “A place where we (officials) can yell back.”
Creating the site, Barlow said, was a matter of self-defense. Since its formation a few years ago, he has received more than 4,000 videos filled with every kind of malfeasance toward officials that you can imagine. He personally pays $100 for every video that is eventually posted (about 90 total so far, 30 of which came from providers who didn’t want to get paid) and, as of summer 2018, the videos had about 150,000 views.
A minority of parents do the majority of damage
He admits it is a minority of the parents who are doing the majority of the damage (about 10 percent, he estimates), but the damage they are doing to the officiating avocation and to youth sports in general is disproportionately severe.
“This can serve as a rebuttal for all the crap we get,” Barlow said. “It got started when a buddy of mine sent me a video of a woman kicking a ball at a referee. I put it on Facebook with an offer of $100 for others just like it. It went viral and here we are.”
Provocative social media campaigns aren’t anything new for Barlow. His business websites promote his work as a modern media consultant, producing video commercials for television and social media for car dealerships, jewelry stores and other clients. He also is available as a public speaker and touts his background as a pilot (since age 18) and soccer referee (with a state-of-the-art titanium knee). Barlow, 44, believes in the power of persuasion and doing everything in a big way.
“In your face, no BS,” he states on his website, ima1percenter.com.
The approach comes through on his “Offside” Facebook page, which has more than 42,000 followers.
A post Barlow put up on “Offside” in October 2018 illustrates both his personal attitude and his broad-based affection for officials.
“If you need rainbows and unicorns on every post here, this page isn’t for you. I just share raw, real perspective from my vantage point. I’m not trying to paint a pretty picture. It isn’t, and chances are you’re in it.
“I’m radically in favor of ‘ALL OFFICIALS’ at all levels and even more radical about restoring the innocence and purity of youth sports. It’s being poisoned.”
“It’s all about accountability,” he added in an interview. “People see the signs we put up at game sites and it sets an expectation. If you do not behave, you will not stay here. It’s amazing when people see them how much better they behave.”
And with his marketing background, Barlow thought some visual aids might help get the STOP message across more clearly.
The signs the program provides include large red and white “STOP” signs that teams, clubs and leagues can use at game sites, as well as others stating, “Warning: Screaming at Officials Not Allowed,” and, “Caution: Players Playing, Coaches Coaching, Officials Officiating. Mistakes Will Be Made. Stay Calm.”
There are vests that game marshals can wear that state “$100 to record referee abuse” and youth officials also hand out small badges that read, “This is a warning. A ‘youth’ referee has issued this pass. The next one will be a dismissal.”
In short, Barlow believes if people see their embarrassing behavior broadcast on social media or have it called out repeatedly by their peers, or are even shunned because of it, they just might change.
It needs to happen, said Barlow, because officials are not the only casualties in a very toxic culture permeating youth sports at all levels — a culture that makes every sport, even if it is just a group of 5-year-olds running around playing soccer for the first time, a matter of life and death to some people.
“When I run into these situations, about 85 percent of the time, a kid either comes up to me to thank me for working the game or, more often, to apologize for the behavior of his or her parents,” Barlow said. “This (bad behavior) is sucking all the enjoyment out of the games for the kids. It should be about the kids learning the game and making themselves better. It should also be about them knowing how to win with grace and lose with dignity and the culture of sportsmanship.
Lost with a “win-at-all-costs” culture
“But all that is getting lost with this win-at-all-costs culture.”
Steve Hahn, a counselor at the Tulsa, Okla., Parent Child Center, agreed, telling KOTV in its story about Barlow’s program: “Our kids are soaking that (ill behavior) up like a sponge.”
A truly sad thing, noted Barlow, is that most of the abuse is being aimed at the youngest officials, as it is estimated that about 70 percent of soccer officials in America are teens. These are kids trying to figure out if they like the job, but NASO reports that more than 70 percent of new referees quit within three years, with fan abuse a big reason why.
Another disturbing trend is that officials are having to eject unruly spectators from youth games in increasing numbers.
And it is not just a soccer problem. NASO reported in a recent survey of 17,500 officials that 87 percent of them have received verbal abuse and 13 percent physical abuse. YouthSoccerInsider also cited a recent Chicago Tribune story that flatly stated: “Abuse by parents and coaches alike has led in part to a shortage of referees and umpires across the country.”
Even more distressing is that officials may have it worse in other parts of the world. The UK Telegraph reported in 2018 that 94 percent of soccer referees in Great Britain say that they have experienced verbal abuse and that one in five have been victims of a physical attack.
Manchester-area referee Ryan Hampson called the situation “a crisis.”
“I’m hoping to change things, but if there is no change, referees will walk away, including me,” Hampson said.
Barlow understands what Hampson is getting at.
He calls his chief offenders “cheeseburgers” for their short-sighted and mean-spirited behavior. They, in his mind, are the “junk food” of the sports world who are making everyone else involved feel ill.
Barlow has been pleased with the response so far in what will likely be a long, uphill fight toward civility. His tenacity is an attribute that matches what he said on his website is his style of officiating.
“My reffing style is very deliberate,” he wrote. “I let the game flow but I’m harsh on unsporting behavior or dissent. I have a no-tolerance policy from the coaches, the players and the parents.”
His campaign has been featured nationwide in numerous newspapers and on the NBC and CBS national news. It has been written about in Forbes and the New York Times.
“I have honestly been surprised by the interest in it,” Barlow said. “I just didn’t know this many people would look at it. When the New York Times did the story it was a little overwhelming. I just wanted to keep awareness up so people understand.”
They have, for as of summer 2018, six Oklahoma clubs have paid a $999 fee to join STOP, and the movement has spread nationwide. Barlow presented the STOP program at a national conference in Philadelphia in 2018 to wide acclaim and a reported 250 clubs and related organizations have expressed interest in becoming affiliates.
His daughter Zoe, the youth soccer official, was even invited to be on a speakers’ panel hosted by Kobe Bryant about the treatment of youth officials.
But the “Offside” site is not all about the negatives of parent behavior. Barlow encourages posts about good behavior and loves all the “reffies” (selfies with referees posing with teams and players after a game) that are streamed each day.
“I’ve had numerous refs tell me how much different it makes them feel when a stranger asks to take a reffie. It opens up dialogue and shows appreciation!” reads a caption on one “reffie” photo.
Barlow’s movement has sparked other ideas to stem the tide of bad behavior in youth sports.
Some clubs in Oklahoma have taken to removing the child of an offending parent from the game and have that child go over and tell the parent to please behave. Then that player is put right back into the game hoping that a point has been made.
Of course, Barlow’s “Scarlet Letter” style of public shaming has received blowback with some people saying there has to be a different way of going about improving behavior.
He admits there are some among his “cheeseburger” crowd who want to “punch him in the mouth.” Others, who have had their sad moments put on the site, have taken it to heart, writing back months later and referring to their improved behavior.
“There is some controversy around the page,” Barlow said. “(But) I’m not looking for anyone’s approval. I am seeking your attention.”
He’s got it.
Because with what seems like a cell phone in almost everyone’s hand in the country right now, bad actions are subject to public recording. Posting them on social media provides Barlow with more grist for his mill.
In one article about Barlow’s program, parents talk about the fact that if they see someone start yelling at an official at a game, they move away because they don’t want to wind up being seen on an “Offside” post.
But many individual officials have endorsed the process. In an August article in the Times Union out of Albany, N.Y., Jim Mangano, a 20-year veteran soccer official from Glenville, N.Y., said he has seen parents brawling, parents threatening referees and police escorting officials off the field. His phone is pre-set to call 911 just in case.
The 70-year-old said the game and people have changed and not for the better, so he has taken to wearing one of Barlow’s STOP shirts everywhere he goes. He said soccer parents have been approaching him. They start a dialogue and agree that things have to get much better.
“Still,” Mangano said. “There are no limits (to bad behavior). There are no boundary lines.”
State athletic officials, such as those in the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association (OSSAA), have been monitoring things closely, and unfortunately know the problem all too well.
OSSAA Deputy Director Todd Dilbeck, a former coach who himself has seen far too much of this kind of behavior, neither commends or condemns Barlow’s program, but he understands why it is here.
“We’ve lost respect for authority in this country,” Dilbeck said. “We used to let officials officiate, players play and coaches coach.
“It’s just so sad when you see parents do that and you’ve got little eyes watching it (meaning the kids). Frequently it’s their own kids. People lose perspective. It’s Little League, not Major League Baseball or the NFL. It’s parents reliving their childhood is the way I see it, and not in a good way.
“Yes, mistakes (by the officials) are going to occur, but it is not the end of the world.”
Like many state athletic associations, Oklahoma has instituted an education-based sportsmanship program. The state also passed a law in 2014 making it a criminal offense to harm officials working either amateur or pro contests. Those convicted face up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The OSSAA’s own program, said Dilbeck, involves having observers being sent out to schools to see how officials are being treated. Dilbeck said reports are sent back to the schools and the schools are rated on how they are doing.
The NFHS also has a sportsmanship course that is linked to the OSSAA plan.
“In our state we recommend that those parents (who are guilty of abusive behavior) take that course,” Dilbeck said. “Not all (school) administrators do it, but some have found it very effective.”
Also a few years ago, the OSSAA put in a policy of a one-game suspension in all sports for coaches who make negative comments to the media about officiating.
They are fighting a strong headwind of unrestrained opinion abetted by social media
These are all well-intentioned strategies, said Barlow, but he said they are fighting a strong headwind of unrestrained opinion abetted by social media.
In an ABC News story on Barlow’s program, one Oklahoma area soccer coach said that maybe he has gone too far.
“There may be a different way of going about it,” said the coach. “Get more parents involved with it instead of pointing them out and making them look like awful people.”
It’s a nice thought, said Barlow in the aforementioned Channel 6 Tulsa story, stating: “I’m not against parents. I’m against parents who can’t control their emotions or judgment.”
He will continue to work the public shaming angle and hopes it will make a dent in the sea of froth and abuse.
He recently made a crucial ally of Kris Bieniewicz, whose husband was a soccer referee in Michigan and was killed four years ago when an irate player punched him. The attacker got eight to 15 years in jail in a highly publicized case, but she wanted more, testifying before the Michigan legislature on a proposal to make it a felony to attack a game official, which could multiply the time behind bars for the offender.
So far, Michigan has declined to pass the proposal. Other states, more than 20 so far, do have laws on the books protecting officials, but they only go so far in Barlow’s eyes.
“A referee in some sport is going to be killed (again) in the near future,” he sadly told the Minneapolis/St. Paul Star Tribune in another story about his program. “We see videos almost every weekend of people coming out of the stands, beating up referees. … Someone is going to get (mad) at a ref and shoot one.”
In his mind, it is up to the 90 percent of parents who don’t act like idiots to take charge, to set good examples, to tell the offensive 10 percent when they are being embarrassing, coarse or rude.
To tell them to “STOP.”
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