Mayhem on the Field

Vanessa, a U13 – U19 coach, asks:

My son plays on a u14 club team. We had our semi final this past weekend. My son was fouled by another player and they exchanged words.  My son was walking away and the other player lunged at and started to physically attack my son.  Both boys started fighting. The ref tried breaking them up but the other team’s players came and it was chaos. Refs had completely lost control of game. Meanwhile, my son is being jumped by 6 players of the other team.  He is on the floor being kicked and punched by the other team. I see that he is bleeding and the refs aren’t helping him, so I ran on the field, pulled my son up and held him tight, basically shielding him from getting hit again. All of this was caught on video. My question, is when can a parent, coach, or bystander intervene and enter the field for the safety of the child if refs have lost control of game?


That is at once both a deeply pertinent as well as unanswerable question.  There is the Law … and then there is practicality.  Finally, there is so much more we would need to know (despite your detailed description) about what did and did not happen that would be directly relevant to coming up with any useful answer.  Nevertheless, here goes.

First, “the Law” makes completely clear that no one is allowed to enter the field of play without the express permission of the referee.  Note that the Laws of the Game were and still largely are written with a particular sort of game in mind – e.g., Britain’s men’s national team versus Mexico’s men’s national team played in Azteca stadium which seats more than 100,000+ spectators where the entire perimeter of the field of play is fenced and patrolled by security guards.  We assume that doesn’t describe the game in your scenario and, as a consequence, much of the behavior you described simply could not happen in a match directly sponsored by FIFA.  It is thus not surprising that things could happen in the ordinary, everyday youth match played in a local field which is guided by a local league which is affiliated with a state association which is affiliated with US Soccer which is affiliated with FIFA.  That’s like being a second cousin twice removed.  It’s still the Laws of the Game, with some limited differences that take into account the age and experience level of the players, but such differences are mainly limited to substitution rules, the size of the field, etc.  So, the official answer is that, unless and until the referee officially declares the game terminated, it remains illegal for anyone to enter the field of play without the permission of the referee.

Second, standard mechanics for officials taught worldwide in association with those Laws, provide that, in the event of a confrontation involving players, the primary task of the officiating team is to attempt to prevent any widening of the altercation but otherwise to watch and record misconduct which must then be included in their match report which then goes to the “local competition authority” which then has the task of sorting out who did what to whom, when, and how seriously.  Directly intervening in an altercation is not recommended – the officiating team is (a) at most 3 people, (b) most likely themselves  youths who are themselves probably only 2-5 years older than the players, and (c) potentially faced by as many as 22 players plus various substitutes from off the benches.  We are not aware of any local referee training which explicitly provides that any of the officials individually or all of them together are expected to wade in and start pushing or pulling players away from each other (i.e., “breaking up the fight”).  Can you imagine the legal liabilities (particularly in the ever-litigious US) faced by an official who started physically grabbing youth players and tossing them around?  Referees are firmly and in no uncertain terms told that they must not touch players.  What you were implicitly advocating would have put all the officials into serious legal jeopardy!

Third, it is both incorrect and unfair to say that the “refs had completely lost control of game” – more accurately, the players had taken control of the game and the coaches had lost control of their players.  The referee team is not tasked with “breaking up confrontations” – they are tasked with doing what they can to prevent a widening of one, to observe the commission of misconduct, to terminate a match, and to write a full, accurate report of who did what for later submission.

Fourth, as a practical matter, it is quite understandable for one or more parents to feel impelled to jump in to protect their children and support their team.  Of course, doing so is quite likely to lead to a widening of the conflict unless the intervention is very specific and limited to protecting one or more players who appear to be the target of any violence.  We note that no mention was made about the actions and behavior of the coaches – they should be “first responders” and the referees should (though this is likely to get lost in the building mayhem) quickly signal permission for the coaches to enter the field and exercise their more direct and meaningful authority regarding the behavior of their players.

Fifth and finally, everyone who saw what happened should make notes to document their recollections and then vigorously pursue whatever avenues are available with respect to the “local competition authority” to ensure that those who started and/or added to the mayhem are properly punished to the degree of their culpability.  Only in this way can you help make less likely similar occurrences in the future might.