SALT LAKE CITY — An alarming number of ejections from boys high school soccer games this spring became a frightening reality for two schools this week when a fight during a game put one boy in the hospital and another in jail.
In just the first three weeks of high school soccer competition in Utah, 51 boys and coaches have already been ejected from games.
Clearfield High’s Suzy Jensen and Highland High’s Paul Schulte were among the principals who discussed the troubling number of ejections at a recent monthly meeting of Region 6 principals. Then just days later on March 25, Jensen and Schulte found themselves dealing with the issue in the form of a scary, sobering situation seldom seen in local prep sports.
During that Tuesday afternoon game between Highland and Clearfield, a fight broke out. A Clearfield player was beaten so badly during the fight that his eye was swollen shut and he was diagnosed with a concussion, Jensen said. As of Friday, he had not returned to school.
“Honestly, I’m really concerned about it,” Jensen said. “It was brought up at our Region Board of Managers meeting, and then right after we had that meeting, there was this altercation.”
Schulte took immediate action removing one player who was involved in a verbal altercation with fans from the team, while the senior who hit the Clearfield player was suspended indefinitely.
The family of the injured teen filed a police report. Schulte said Clearfield police showed up at Highland High on Wednesday and arrested the 18-year-old player. He was taken to jail and booked for investigation of assault, although formal charges will be determined by Davis County prosecutors.
“We’re committed to having good sportsmanship,” Schulte told the Deseret News. “When this happened, we moved aggressively.”
Schulte is also requiring his coach to sit out a game, and lead the team in performing community service.
“We wanted to emphasize that when the team is out of control, that’s the coach’s responsibility to keep things under control,” he said.
Sportsmanship and ejection issues are not new to the sport. In fact, the sport was put on probation twice in the last two decades as the Utah High School Activities Association grapples with how to deal with the situation.
Last year during the 2012-13 school year, boys soccer in Utah had 119 ejections (107 students and 12 coaches), while all other sports combined had 121 ejections. The sport was put on probation in June of 2007 after 111 ejections that season.
The most recent discussions began on March 18 at the UHSSA’s executive committee when an ejection report revealed that the sport had already seen 22 ejections through just two weeks of competition. While that number was high enough to prompt principals to discuss possible solutions and sanctions, that number more than doubled just one week later to 51 ejections.
“This is what I’m worried about,” said supervisor of officials Mike Petty, who presented both reports to UHSAA representatives. While some of the ejections can be explained by a rule change implemented by the National Federation that governs prep sports associations, many are due to poor sportsmanship.
“Of the 51 ejections, 14 of those were from players receiving a second yellow card (which results in an automatic red card and ejection),” Petty said. Those are fouls that likely wouldn't result in an ejection in other sports. Instead, they're ejections that come after a player receives a second yellow card, which can be for a simple rule violation like encroachment, and it's a situation that's unique to soccer.
The other 37 ejections would be for behavior that's similar to the reasons for ejections in other sports. And it's those ejections that have officials concerned.
"The language, the violent conduct, things like that," Petty said. "(Things) players can do something about."
Jensen was shocked that the numbers jumped from 22 to 51 ejections in one week, especially since administrators were already alarmed about the issue.
“It’s insane,” she said. “Especially after all we’ve done. I don’t have an answer for what’s going on.”
Volatile fans, coaches
Jensen, Schulte and Petty said administrators and coaches have had meetings with parents, players and coaches hoping to make good sportsmanship a high priority. The Utah High School Activities Association has also created and used a number of programs aimed at addressing sportsmanship with coaches and players of all sports.
But boys soccer seems to be a peculiar problem. Schulte said supervising a soccer game is one of the most stressful situations administrators face.
Jensen said the assistant principal attending the Clearfield-Highland game where the fight broke outmentioned a number of issues, but three most prominently — the proximity of fans to the field, their poor sportsmanship and the inability of officials to control the game. Jensen said the Clearfield administrator at the game said there was bantering “on both sides, with several yellow cards given.”
“(Our administrator) mentioned that he wished the officials would have maybe stepped in before it got to the point it got to,” Jensen said. “I’ve talked to other administrations about the fans. We’ve been concerned about the fans at soccer games and how volatile they can be. They add fuel to the fire. It just seems like that’s getting out of hand.”
Viewmont High boys soccer coach Dave Wigham has 30 years of coaching experience. He also has the unique perspective of having officiated soccer games.
“One of my biggest complaints is that there is no communication between officials and coaches,” he said. “A lot of them think their two worst enemies are the two head coaches.”
He said better communication would lead to less frustration on the part of players and coaches, and it's a concern echoed by other prep coaches.
“When an official doesn’t respond to me, I think he doesn’t hear me,” Wigham said he told one official. “So I’m going to get louder.”
Petty said officials do their best to make the right calls and coaches who “chirp and carry on” may be unwittingly making the situation worse.
“The players are going to emulate the coach,” he said.
But the issues regarding officiating are more complicated than whether or not the right calls are being made or whether or not they’re talking to coaches. It may have more to do with the system that officials see as beneficial to their careers.
“These officials are good officials, but they can’t always be in the right positions and they’re not physically able to keep up with the pace of the game,” Wigham said. “I talk to officials and they’re telling me all the time that they can’t get new ones.”
He said when coaches tried to address this issue a few years ago, younger officials said they had trouble getting off work for 3:30 p.m. games. That led many coaches to try to adjust their schedules to put varsity games after 5 p.m. But that time proved just as problematic as officials opted to work club games instead of high school games.
“Younger referees tell me, ‘I don’t have the time and I don’t really have to (officiate high school),” Wigham said.
The system, he said, requires young officials to gain experience officiating club matches at various levels before taking college games and then professional matches. While officials in sports such as basketball and football gain most of their valuable experience at the high school level, that’s not the case for soccer officials, he said.
The result is sometimes older officials who can’t keep up with the athletic young players.
“They’re calling it from 40 yards away,” Wigham said.
“You can’t blame the players if officials let things go. Somehow you’ve got to find a way to get the younger referees (officiating) high school games.”
Wigham cited an interesting example.
“Go to one of these club matches between La Roca and Forza and you’ll see a really good soccer game — officials keep it under control. And it’s the same kids who play on Viewmont and Layton,” he said. But when the same group of boys play for their respective high schools, that match “is always a blood bath because the officials let it go that way,” he said.
Petty said the state travels to colleges every year recruiting young officials for all sports. In an effort to address retention, the UHSAA conducted a survey of all officials asking them what made them contemplate quitting. The top concerns were time away from their families, poor sportsmanship of fans, coaches and players and lower pay.
Petty said it may simply be that the growth of the sport has simply out-paced the state’s ability to hire, train and retain quality officials.
“It just hasn’t kept up with the growth of the sport,” Petty said.
He and UHSAA Assistant Director Bart Thompson, who oversees soccer, plan to meet this week to discuss the ejections and what strategies might help.
“We’re appealing to administrators and coaches to see what they can do to help,” he said, while acknowledging the state will also take a closer look at club officiating and how they train younger officials.
Most high school coaches said the sportsmanship this spring is no worse than any other season. And most don’t favor a blanket punishment for the failure of a few programs.
"I think you need to take each case individually and look at that," said Lee Mitchell, Alta High's head coach for both boys and girls soccer. "Maybe they can keep track if certain programs are getting more of these cards than others, then look at those programs and sanction those programs individually."
Petty said the state is focused on solutions. Principals like Jensen and Schulte are already talking to their coaches and each other about what they can do in the immediate future.
“Right now I think we’re doing what we can,” Schulte said. “I gave my coach the edict that winning will be the third or fourth priority. They need to play a good soccer game but do it with class and dignity.”
Added Jensen: “We’re going to meet with our boys, with our coaches and discuss what this does, how it reflects on our school, the student body and athletics as a whole.”