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Stand Up for Justice, or We All Lose

A 2014 anti-bullying event at Mother Seton Academy in Baltimore with Maryland's then first lady, Katie O'Malley (center, with scarf). (Maryland GovPics / CC BY 2.0)

I have never liked bullies. I still don’t.

A few weeks ago, while coaching my daughter’s under-10 soccer team, we encountered a referee who acted like a bully. During the championship game of a tournament, this referee did not exhibit professionalism or mutual respect toward our team and sideline. Over the course of the game, he showed bias against our players and aggression toward our parents when they were cheering. He made multiple incorrect calls regarding possession on out-of-bounds plays, inadvertent hand balls, headers and indirect kicks. His actions affected the flow of the game and even may have influenced the outcome of the game, which we lost in overtime.

Our team—nine girls under the age of 10—was heartbroken. They had played their hearts out to reach the championship game, winning four games over the course of a blazing hot Sunday. Tears started to flow.

The head coach and I attempted to console the girls. We did not make excuses or blame the referee. We used the loss as a teachable moment and explained:

Sometimes in sports, we face obstacles outside of our control. We have to overcome these challenges to succeed. We have to find a way to win. We don’t always get the result we want. But in failure, we have to understand that the journey is the reward and learn from the experience to become better. Bad referees are a part of life, and life’s not fair. It’s good to learn this lesson early. So we can learn how to bounce back from disappointment. That is the most important lesson today.

The words did little to soothe the disappointment.

As parents, you don’t want to see your child upset. We weren’t angry that our team had lost. We just didn’t appreciate that the referee had prevented the girls from having a joyful experience they had earned. Of course, our encounter with a bad referee is not the first time parents have faced such frustration. Bad referees have been a part of youth sports since referees started blowing whistles. And once again, a referee made the game about him, becoming a part of the story, something a referee should never do.

The coach and I wanted to do something beyond our postgame talk to stand up for our team, show solidarity for our players, our kids. So we wrote an email to the league commissioner and head of referees, and gave our side of the story. “We understand that being a youth soccer referee involves some judgment calls, and there will be human error at times in games, especially with volunteer referees. But we believe the referee’s performance in our game went beyond human error,” we said. “We hope the matter can be addressed with the referee to ensure a safe, fun playing environment for games he referees in the future.”

That was our way of restoring a modicum of justice. We said our piece. Now, we could get back to enjoying the beautiful game (see here and here), which is meant to elicit emotions more like this.

And this.

On the bullying scale of life, a bad referee in a youth soccer game is a pebble in a pond compared to terrible injustices that are happening around the world on a daily basis.

But bullying has become symptomatic of a bigger cultural problem: a complete erosion of civility and simple human decency. This lack of empathy starts early. According to, 30 percent of students worldwide are bullied each year. Often, people don’t say anything when they witness bullying.

Lots of bullying happens in the shadows, but when we see it, we should stand up against it. Not saying or doing anything to bullies means that type of behavior goes unchecked and is condoned. Silence and non-action becomes complicity. If we are not careful, micro-aggressive tormenters can rise to a level of power where they can do real damage—damage beyond repair.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

No matter the size or scope of injustice today, anyone can be a “parent” and say or do something positive when we see a “bad referee” at any level of society. We need to build a culture of compassion, what King called a coalition of conscience.

Otherwise, injustice wins.

And we all lose.

Eric Ortiz
Eric Ortiz is a journalist and innovator with two decades in digital media, Ortiz founded the mobile app startup Evrybit, a live storytelling and reporting tool, as a 2014 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at…
Eric Ortiz

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