Referees already policing the on-field action must now play the role of detective after the Manitoba Soccer Association ordered them to monitor how spectators are physical distancing during matches.
The MSA's referee development committee sent out an email Monday requiring all officials to begin gathering evidence of either the good or bad behaviour of parents and other fans. That includes taking photos and providing a written report of what they observe at pitches across the province during the COVID-19 crisis.
Clearly, the organization is concerned its return-to-play guidelines are being widely disregarded, and is taking steps to improve the situation with about five or six weeks left in the outdoor season.
That's despite the fact MSA executive director Hector Vergara told the Free Press last week recommendations — not enforceable rules — were provided to leagues across the province but that the organization could not possibly supervise every match.
One city soccer ref isn't happy about being deputized.
"I don't want to take photos of children and I don't want to take photos of parents who already are set up to hate me. I don't think it gets at the issue, and I think it's asking a lot of refs who aren't given the tools to effectively deal with this anyway," said the ref, who asked not to be named.
Some participants and fans in the amateur sports community are exhibiting risky behaviourClick to Expand
Posted: 7:00 PM Aug. 28, 2020
Disregarding the advice of public health officials — either willfully or unintentionally — is part of the playbook for some participants on the local sports scene during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many of the recommendations included in the return-to-play plans of sports such as soccer, slo-pitch and baseball aren’t being heeded, more than two months after the province approved the return to diamonds and fields across the city.
"It does concern me that there are youth that are (officiating). I am in my 30s, so I don't feel like I'm going to get yelled at... but there could be a real power imbalance for a young ref who is already trying to keep a hold of a game and parents are quite vocal. Now, we have to take photos of them? And (a report), which we aren't compensated for? I don't see how this will change anything."
The Free Press randomly attended soccer matches last week and chronicled a disturbing lack of physical distancing by spectators along the sidelines as well as players on the bench. On the pitch, players also flouted the recommendation to refrain from embracing or slapping hands in celebration.
Vergara said adding to the responsibilities of referees made the most sense.
"It's going to take them five seconds to take a picture from across the field. They don't have to interact with anybody, just snap the picture and submit it with the game report," he said Monday. "It's a way to gather information in a way that's neutral without having to hire staff. There's no resources for that. So, we're trying to use the avenues that we have already.
"They don't have to engage any of the spectators in any fashion or any of the players or coaching staff. It's a quick way for us to get easy information."
Two weeks ago, the MSA acknowledged someone in the Winnipeg youth soccer community had tested positive for COVID-19, although it did not indicate if it was a player, coach or referee.
Last Friday, the MSA issued what it called "one last reminder" to its membership compelling fans to follow the physical-distancing requirements of two metres along the sidelines. It warned spectators might be prohibited at all outdoor senior games and limited to just one guardian per player at youth games, or of the suspension of the season entirely if the situation doesn't improve.
"It's going to take them five seconds to take a picture from across the field. They don't have to interact with anybody, just snap the picture and submit it with the game report. It's a way to gather information in a way that's neutral without having to hire staff. There's no resources for that. So, we're trying to use the avenues that we have already." ‐ Hector Vergara, MSA president
"We need to make sure our membership reacts, and if they react positively then we probably won't have to do anything for the remainder of the season," Vergara said. "We've had reports from referees, from coaches, from administrators about the situations happening, often enough that we are getting concerned."
He remains hopeful teams and spectators will do what's appropriate, particularly now as the rate of infection climbs in Manitoba. Health officials reported 28 new cases Monday, raising the number of active cases to 469. Eleven people are in hospital and one is in intensive care.
"People move around. They have work, they have school, they have other activities, other sports, they mingle with people. And the more cases in the province, irrespective of the location, the more likelihood and the probability goes higher that somebody in soccer or in sport can get infected with the virus and then we're in a situation where we need then to shut down the whole sport," he said. "That's not what we want. We want to avoid that step altogether.
"Everyone has a responsibility and we can't do nothing. We have to work with our resources to see that there is a change in the trend and, hopefully, everyone gets the message that we're in this together. We want to get the season done safely. Kids want to play. Adults want to play."
The referee interviewed said while the welfare of players is always the primary concern, there's an inherent risk in soccer that cannot be ignored. Players can inhale virus particles because they are so close to one another, even on a large field.
The ref believes some of local soccer's return-to-play guidelines are only for appearances sake.
"I don't think it's possible to stay socially distant and play soccer. So, a lot of these measures are just hiding the real risk and focusing on things that don't matter," the individual said. "I find it comical I'm the only on who's supposed to touch the game sheet and this is somehow supposed to prevent the spread of COVID, when we know that objects aren't the things that matter. It's the aerosolized breath. And it's really quite impossible in the administration of the game and playing the game for there to be distance measures.
"Kids not sitting close to each other on the bench may limit things, but then they're out on the field breathing heavy on each other. You can forgive kids for not understanding why they can't sit close to their buddies when as soon as they get onto the field they can get as close as they want."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).