Ontario referees will be outfitted with body cameras this summer in an effort to stop aggressive abuse at soccer games across the province.
“Last year we had a 16-year-old female official assaulted in a parking lot by angry parents,” Johnny Misley, president of Ontario Soccer, said on Monday.
“We had a player in an adult recreation game last year thrown out of the game only to go to their car and pull a machete out of their trunk and chase the referee around the field.”
In response, the Ontario Soccer Association is launching a pilot project, handing some of their referees body cameras, designed to capture any abuse, physical or mental, officials are subject to while on the job.
“Human behaviour has changed and we’ve seen an increase in aggressive behviour toward referees in matches,” said Misley.
The provincial association is still working out the logistics of where the pilot will take place but the president says it will likely launch on July 1 and run through the indoor season with a report out next year.
“We’re taking a zero tolerance approach,” he said.
The move follows a pilot project already underway in the U.K. to deal with the exact same issue. Ontario’s local associations are celebrating the idea.
“Unfortunately we’ve seen quite an increase in both the incidents, the number and the severity since coming back from COVID,” said Michelle Loveless, executive director of the Durham Region Soccer Association.
She said the result is a roughly 66 per cent decrease in the number of registered referees in her district.
“Back in 2019, which was our last full outdoor season prior to COVID, we had 623 match officials registered. This year we have 219,” said Loveless.
Toronto is facing a similar stress on lack of officials signing up.
“We’re talking referees that are only 14 or 15 years old,” said Toronto Soccer Association president, Rob Gillies, “all it takes is an adult to get in their face screaming at them and then they just say enough.”
He said it will also be a huge help in discipline because at the moment while coaches can pay a fine for yelling at a ref, spectators are the responsibility of the club.
“Some of these parents kind of get themselves off the hook. The club pays the fine,” said Gillies, adding that now there will be video footage.
Toronto’s Referee Association has education and support systems in place, as well as offering assistance in writing reports when an issue arises.
“A piece of technology like a camera that can be added to the game is an extra element,” said Matthew Bagazzoli, vice president of the Toronto Referee Association, “it could be a deterrent, it could be a useful tool to properly enforce the laws.”
He said it’s important to keep the game fun for everyone because the shortage of referees is being felt across the city but the number of games each day is back up to pre-pandemic levels.
“A lot of referees get overworked and they’re overburdened,” said Bagazzoli, “technology could play an important role and there’s definitely an advantage to having something like that in the game.”