“I’m proud of him for standing up to that ref! That was a terrible call,” the man said as lifted his soccer chair, slamming the two arms together. Shaking his head and muttering to those around him, or perhaps mostly to himself, he added, “I’m really proud of him for standing up for himself. He has the right to do that.”
I overhear this as I wait to take my place on the sidelines to watch the next game. My 12-year-old daughter’s team is about to take the field. There still is a buzz in the air. No handshakes being offered or good-game wishes. Officials are conferring and consulting with one another. The previous game must have ended badly.
I’ve seen this happen before leaving angry team parents red in the face from yelling about the call that “cost them the game.” They swear under their breath and disparage the ref, the play, the other team, the other coach, the outcome. Sometimes this escalates into a shouting match on the sidelines with opposing parents lobbing epithets and even threats at each other. Occasionally, things even get physical.
But in this moment is different and I’m stunned. Never before have I heard a parent uttering glowing praise for their kid who was just issued a red card for dissent toward a referee.
Dissent is a red-cardable offense according the rules of soccer, which are officially called the “Laws” of soccer. It is one of just a few transgressions considered so egregious that the penalty is ejection from the game. The player cannot be replaced, and their team must complete the game with one less player, known as playing “one man down.”
Outright red cards are quite rare in youth games in my experience. Typically, they are shown when a player is engaged in such persistent fouling that they have been called twice for yellow card offenses. ( 2 yellows is an automatic red) Regular fouls, punishable by a yellow card and a free-kick for the opposing team, happen fairly regularly. They are run-of the mill transgressions: shoving, tripping, illegal tackling, handling the ball (other than the goal keeper), obstruction, reckless play. Generally, they occur because kids are just a bit overly enthusiastic or perhaps a bit too aggressive, and even then, the player is usually warned before they’re booked with a yellow. Persistent misbehavior earns a red.
Apparently, this kid persisted.
His proud papa has me thinking about why we need referees. I confess that, in my capacity as player, coach and parent, I have sometimes disagreed with a referee and occasionally said so. Loud enough for that referee to hear. But I hope I have not done so in a way that has disparaged that person and certainly not with the intention of overriding or negating the established laws of the game or the ones pledged to uphold them.
The game needs a ref: in fact it must have one. If two teams are going to compete fully and at their best, we need someone who knows the rules and will administer them fairly, in an unbiased fashion, equally toward each side. It’s a tough job. Refs get paid to do it, but not much. The good ones see it as a chance to teach the players how to compete well according to the rules. They cannot tolerate dissent. If they do, things quickly devolve.
Sides resort to whatever tactics work and if enough is at stake they play with complete impunity.
Downward this spirals. Anything to win. Morality and ethicality out the window. "Out on you! Our ball!" Too late. Catch up, loser. I'm only cheating if I get caught I'm only lying if they can prove it And even then, if I can talk my way out of it, I'm a celebrity.
Yes, without rules and someone upholding them, things usually get ugly.
True, sometimes the ref misses a call. Sometimes they don’t see the foul, or they let things go, or they may even seem to be leaning in favor of one side over the other. They are, after all, fallible. But we cede authority to them because we need to for the sake of the game. Once we don’t, we’re lost and all is lost. We may as well not even play because in the game played without regard for rules, the one most willing to break them is the winner. In effect, the worst team always wins.
Today, in the aftermath of the storming of the US Capitol Building by individuals in complete disregard for the rule of law in our country, I am wondering about manmade law and its place in our lives. About the boundaries and regulations law-abiding citizens agree to observe. About the authority under which we place ourselves for the sake of security, community and the common good.
What’s clear is this: left to our own devices, we are not that good. We need a referee.
And for this we may need to go back to the basics. Back to the decrees and laws declared at the first, when Moses was appointed referee. Back to thou-shalt-not…
- have other gods
- bow in allegiance to idols
- use God’s name in vain
- give false testimony about your neighbor (lie)
- or covet what belongs to your neighbor.
- And thou shall:
- observe the Sabbath and
- honor your mother and father.
Today, this years-ago boy and his showering of praise for his red-carded dissent has come back to mind. Probably 12-13 then, that would put him in his late 20’s now. Just about the age of many we saw ravage the halls of our Congress yesterday. I wonder if that boy has grown into a young man that father is still proud of.
Dear Lord, Today, I pray for our country. For this Republic and the bold experiment it represents. Thank you for our founders and their foresight, for the rule of law and for those who uphold it. Protect them and bear them up on your powerful wings. Today, I pray for our country. I lift up to you those who have lost their way. Those who have forgotten the thou-shalt-nots, those who never learned them and especially those who have lost their fear of them. Today, I pray for our country. Help us to renew our commitment to each other as we rededicate ourselves to You. Cleanse from us anything that would hinder your work in our lives. Help us to trust so we can obey with willing hearts and clear minds. Amen
” I am special because … I am really good at playing soccer.”
Saw this today. A mother’s shout-out from her teacher-parent conference, complete with an image of her young child, kindergarten age, with a quotation bubble completing this phrase. His smiling face hovered atop a cutout body, colored with red and green crayolas.
It is no surprise that this child has skills advanced for his age. His parents are dynamite soccer players. From the cradle, he has been immersed in this game. It’s a great game. Wonderful to teach children how to use their bodies well, and when they’re older, how to work with teammates, how to take direction from coaches, how to focus on what’s important and not on all that chatter from the sidelines.
But little one, though today you may excel at playing soccer compared to your teammates or classmates or age mates, there will come a day when, by comparison, you may fall short. And on that day I hope you will remember what was true long before this day. I hope you hear it from your teacher, your coaches, your parents — even and especially if they’re also you’re coaches: you are special before you ever take the field.
I know they feel this way, but perhaps in the muddle of midget soccer things have gotten confused or at least confounded. You have connected yourself with capability and so you wear your confidence proudly. You’re rewarded for your accomplishment and it becomes hard to distinguish yourself from it. It’s who you are; it’s what you do; it’s what you love to do, what you’re meant to do, where you’re meant to be, who you’re meant to be; it’s what you’re made for.
How I would love this for you, if only….
If only, instead of “I am special because I can…,” you could begin with “I am special because I am …..” Unique in all the world. The only me that will ever be. Nothing compares with that.
Be bold, little one, but first, be you.
How hard could it to be get 21 straight batters? I’ve already got twelve outs. Four scoreless innings. Not only scoreless, but hitless. Not only hitless, but walkless and errorless, too. Wow, I have a perfect game going through 4 innings. Bear down. Work hard. Make every pitch count.
Then, I hang that curve ball right over the middle of the plate. I knew it the second it left my hand. Not the zip. Not the rotation. Not the spot that I intended. And there goes my perfect game, sailing right over the center field fence.
I’ve never pitched in the big leagues, but that’s how I imagine it when a pitcher has a perfect game going. Nothing remarkable in the first couple innings, but when the outs are recorded and as the scoreboard signifies the 3 ups, 3 downs, the pressure must build. Don’t blow it!
That’s what this purple band felt like last weekend. I had a perfect game going. Had tallied a number of days in a row. Feeling pretty daggone proud of just how perfect the game was that I was pitching. Also, the pressure was building. Don’t blow it now.
Oh, there had been a couple of questionable calls, but the perfect game was still intact. Until the soccer game. Caught me totally off guard. I mean, for crying out loud, I have coached for years, worked with athletes. My daughters are all certified referees. But “Geez! That ball was off white!!”
And there it was. The complaint. And the band switch, made even more humiliating by the pouring rain and the elasticized sleeve of my jacket on the wrist of the hand holding the umbrella. But that’s not the worst part. Once I had blown my perfect game, the motivation to maintain my streak had vanished. Why not toss in a few more comments now that you’ve already blown it?
Oh, little purple band of mine. You are an illusive perfect game.
So yep, I’m back on the mound again. Got my defenses up, especially in the danger zones. We’ve got the scouting report on the other team. We adjust accordingly for the lefty who usually pulls it or the righty who hits to the opposite field. I’m pretty sure I won’t strike out every batter. But I’ve got a capable defense behind me. And knowing that makes me a better pitcher.
What’s 21 straight batters? Ugh. That seemed so much easier in the dugout before the game. Before the world came to bat, dedicated to defeating my best attempts. I am better than this. Better than them. Perhaps a bit of rosin and a pause before the windup. We can do this. Batter up!