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Column: Oklahoma ref leads effort to stem abuse of officials

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FILE - In this Nov. 12, 2015, file photo, Spenser Simmons, left, a referee with the North Texas Basketball Officials Association, speaks to players during a high school freshman girls basketball game in Allen, Texas. An Oklahoma man is leading the charge to stamp out the intolerable behavior that referees must endure at every stage of sports, from youth leagues to the adult level. This is an issue we all need to get behind, because there could come a day when no one is willing to officiate the games we play. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

The referee is the most convenient scapegoat on the field.

When things don't go your child's way, just blame whoever is wearing the striped shirt.

It's so much easier than accepting that your kid may not be the next Michael Jordan, or Lionel Messi, or Tom Brady. It feels so much better to yell at someone else than fess up to your own failings as a parent, as an athlete, as a human being.

Well, Brian Barlow is fed up with all the abuse.

He's eager to make a change.

A soccer referee for more than a decade, the Oklahoma man has launched a program known as Offside to cast shame on abusive parents at all levels of youth sports. To encourage people to take out their cellphones and document those who get out of control, Barlow offers $100 to anyone who sends in a video that gets published on his Facebook page.

"We're not setting expectations that that this is how you should behave," Barlow said. "When we don't set expectations, when we don't hold people accountable, it really becomes a zoo with the animals running amok."

The examples of this noxious behavior are too numerous to document — hey, just take a look at Barlow's site — but it's leading to a crisis in the games we play. All over the country, in all sports, from youth leagues to adult organizations, referees are walking away because they just can't take it anymore.

If this keeps up , there may not be anyone left to blow the whistle or make the call.

"Most parents are pretty good, but about 10 percent of the parents are ruining youth sports," Barlow said. "They're usually out of shape, never played any sports and are living vicariously through their kids."

This problem is certainly nothing new. I can remember my own father getting tossed from a youth baseball game for arguing calls. I can recall playing basketball for an especially volatile coach whose temper was so notorious he would just eject himself from the arena when things got out of hand.

But Barlow, who has been a soccer referee for more than a decade, believes the problem has gotten worse with the rise of social media.

"We live in a society where everybody wants instant gratification," he said. "We have parents who want to be able to show on Facebook and Instagram that their kid won a championship, that Sammy or Sally was holding the trophy at the end of the game. Sometimes, they're driving 600 miles and spending thousands of dollars to go to these games for a weekend. They want to make it worthwhile."

The problem isn't just at the youth level, of course.

Kris Bieniewicz can vouch for that.

Her 44-year-old husband, John, died after being punched by an irate player while calling an adult soccer game in Michigan four years ago — a crime that sent shockwaves around the world, but seems to have done little to stem the tide of abusive behavior toward referees, umpires and officials.

In July, a brawl broke out at a youth basketball tournament in north Georgia when players from a Chicago-based team got into it with the referees. While conflicting reasons were given for the incident, video clearly showed the players throwing punches at the officials , who fought back while onlookers screamed in horror.

"The bottom line: it's a game," Kris Bieniewicz said Friday in a telephone interview. "Yes, winning is a bonus. But you're trying to teach kids. There's a gazillion life lessons that come out of the world of sports. But we need to just have fun, relax, and let the kids learn. Your kid's scholarship is not going to be determined by one bad call ... but a parent's bad behavior may cause you to lose your scholarship."

When Bieniewicz learned of Barlow's efforts, she reached out to him.

"This kind of hits me in the heart a little bit," she said.

A few weeks ago, Barlow was able to meet with Bieniewicz on a trip to Michigan.

"I can't even put into words necessarily how it makes me feel that he's pushing this issue," she said. "I'm trying to make people aware of it. I've tried to do stuff at the state level here in Michigan, so far to no avail. I'm only one person. Obviously, this is not a localized issue. It needs to stop, plain and simple."

Her husband's attacker was sentenced to eight-to-15 years in prison.

She wants even stiffer penalties.

Bieniewicz has testified before the Michigan Legislature on behalf of a proposal that would automatically make any assault on a referee a felony and could tack on more prison time depending on the seriousness of the injuries. In her husband's case, it would have added another five years to the sentence.

So far, the bill has failed to gain approval.

"The state just doesn't seem to care," Bieniewicz said.

Barlow, for his part, isn't just looking to shame those who cross the line.

He is also launching a program that seeks to pass along the lessons he has learned from dealing with unruly parents, coaches, fans and players.

He calls it STOP — Stop Tormenting Officials Permanently .

If it doesn't stop now, Barlow has no doubt that another tragedy is looming.

"A referee in some sport is going to be killed in the near future," he said. "We see videos almost every weekend of people coming out of the stands, coming to the sidelines, beating up referees. I don't care what side of the gun debate you're on, but there's often more guns than fans at these games. Someone is going to get (mad) at a ref and shoot one."

There are signs of hope.

Many kids in Barlow's video collection are shown standing up to their parents, separating them from the officials and even yelling at them to stop.

Before he so senselessly died, John Bieniewicz taught his son how to be a soccer referee.

Now 18, Kyle Bieniewicz is still calling games.

"I said, 'Kyle, you don't have do this anymore if don't want do it,'" Kris Bieniewicz said proudly. "He didn't even flinch. He jumped right back into it."

It's the easiest thing in the world to hate the referees.

What they really deserve is our respect.

___

Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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