Toronto FC Academy players will get a chance to walk a mile in the cleats of the sport's most thankless position: the referee. As part of a partnership with the Ontario Soccer Association, TFC Academy's U-14 to U-19 players will become certified match officials.
Players will get both in classroom and practical on field training as they learn the ins and outs of the referee position. The training sessions will be held at Toronto FC's KIA training ground.
The move will benefit the next generation of TFC players in a couple of key ways according to Academy Director Laurent Guyot. He explained in a press release that it will help the players to better comprehend the rules of the game, increase confidence and help to foster respect for referees.
There is no doubt that all of these things are important, but it is the final reason mentioned that is the most important. One does not have to look far to see how officials are being treated in modern sports. Plastered all over sports newscasts recently were clips of Calgary Flames defenceman Dennis Wideman hitting an official from behind. It was the talk of the day, but also part of a bigger issue.
In sports the referee has become the enemy, viewed as a bandit who robs teams of chances, goals and in some cases points. It is all but impossible to go to a sporting event where the ref does not get abused, even if they call a perfect game. A popular chant heard around BMO Field, and other stadiums, goes "I'm blind, I'm deaf, I wanna be a ref."
On the field the referee has to manage 22 egos as well as numerous coaches and players screaming at them on the sidelines. When they make a call judged to be poor they often get swarmed by both teams yelling at the top of their lungs. That can't be good for the ears, and certainly explains the "deaf" part of the aforementioned chant.
It's plain to see that referees are no longer respected, and it's something that is fostered at a young age. Competitive youth coaches, parents and even role model players culminates in the amount of disrespect that officials are shown in today's sport's world.
Toronto FC Academy has had its fair share of hiccups since its inception. Players have had difficulty transitioning from the academy to the professional ranks and true success stories are few and far between. Some of the academies best graduates no longer play with the club, see Michael Petrasso of QPR who would certainly be a nice addition to the squad right now.
In this instance, however, the academy getting their players to go through referee training is a brilliant move on so many levels. In fact, it is one that should be noted by all elite development programs across sports. If the culture of disrespect towards referees is to change it has to be done from the ground up.
More respect for referees would only make them better. It would mean less pressure when they make calls, and less worry about how they will be seen as a result. It would also likely mean a wider pool of referees as the job losing its stigma, which can only help improve the quality of officiating.
So hats off on this one TFC Academy, hopefully this small action will help lead to more widespread change.