July 3, 2014 at 1:00 am

LETTER

Give refs respect they deserve

Time was, referees were a respected part of athletic competition. Society has veered from that standard at its peril, and sometimes with fatal consequences. (Chuck Uhlinger)

Every year, there are thousands of soccer matches played in Michigan, and hundreds of thousands of matches are played throughout the United States. Regardless of age, matches are played with enthusiasm, excitement, and energy. Two teams compete against one another for victory in emotional competition.

Yet, in every match, there is a third team — the referee crew. Officials range in age from as young as 14 to as old as 70. As the current World Cup competition displays, referees are admonished, blamed, ridiculed and applauded for their contribution to the beautiful game of soccer. Like players, we also compete to succeed — to get to the top of the sport we love.

Unfortunately, there are times when players or fans forget about the game and displace their frustrations in manners that impact everyone.

This is noted in the tragic death of John Bieniewicz, a 44-year-old father, referee, and man who loved officiating youth matches in Michigan. He has been described as the “gentle giant who took pride in telling stories of his two sons” and who accepted willingly youth matches of all ages. He was a teacher, a coach, a role model, a father, and a man who simply enjoyed giving to a game so players and fans could fully enjoy a sport that they loved — especially in love of his two sons,

We share this tragic story for a simple reason. John’s unfortunate death gives us an opportunity to reflect on the contributions and role of the “third team” in sports.

Like players, sports officials dedicate time to training, studying the rules of competition, and helping to develop players. Out of more than 131,000 registered soccer referees in the U.S., only one referee crew was fortunate to earn the privilege of being invited to officiate the World Cup in Brazil.

Like players, referees develop their skills through work and effort. Yet, unlike players, sports officials are subjected to consistent criticism. “Referee, are you blind? How could you call that? Where did you get your referee license — a Cracker Jack box?”

Occasionally, there are reports of referee abuse and assault in virtually every sport. What are we teaching our youth, schools or communities when we “join the crowd of dissent”? When spectators are asked if they would be interested in becoming a sports official, an all to common response is: “Who in their right mind would subject themselves to verbal abuse, threats of physical abuse, and repeated negative statements?” Simple — people who have a passion for sports, who enjoy working with others, and who help support the skill development of young amateur athletes.

John’s tragic death is a painful loss to the soccer community — and youth soccer in Michigan — but this pales in comparison to the loss to the Bieniewicz family and thousands of persons whom John touched in his short life. The Michigan Soccer Referee Committee asks those who read this to offer their prayers and support for the Bieniewicz family, but also to thank sports officials of all ages for their willingness to be the “third” team for the enjoyment of athletes and fans throughout the world.

We also ask that you reflect on how public criticism expressed at sports officials can turn into rage that can impact the life chances of officials who do what they “love.” Remember, like young athletes, sports officials are also developing and refining their skills. Referees are also human. Celebrate their contribution by expressing your gratitude for their time, effort, and contribution to the sports that we choose to play.

And to John Bieniewicz and his family, we express our gratitude for your contribution to soccer, for your support and collegiality of bettering the referee community across Michigan and the nation and for touching the lives of youth in your professional and personal communities. You may be gone from this world — but never forgotten.

Francisco A. Villarruel, Michigan State

Soccer Referee Administrator