Refs Sad But Not Shocked After Soccer Homicide

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Joe Gazda chooses which referees will officiate each game for the Greater Lansing Area Soccer Referee Association. He loves the sport and he loves his job as a referee.

So you can imagine how he was feeling after learning John Bieniewicz, the referee who was punched after ejecting a player in a men's rec league game in Livonia, had died from the assault.

"It's tragic that something like that has to happen in a game," said Gazda. "We read about it in referee magazines and it just seems like we hear about it more and more. And it needs to stop."

Referees are only human, Gazda said, and they do make mistakes. He says unrest can start with unruly fans that like to get on the case of a referee. Coaches and players can get hot under the collar too.

"It's easy to be a referee from the sideline or from your TV," he said. "I never make a bad call when I'm watching on my couch. But when you're in the game and play is quick and dynamic and you have to make a decision, hey, sometimes you get it wrong."

It's just the latest death of an official during a game. In April 2013, a 17-year-old player punched a rec-league referee in Utah. The referee died a week later.

"Sportsmanship just seems to be leaving the games," said Gazda. "And it's not just soccer. I'm seeing it in all sports."

Umpires Luke Moreno and Fred Charles, working a pair of games for the Officials for Kids Association, say they don't see too many problems in Lansing, but they have definitely noticed an increase in intensity.

"I think it starts down in the little leagues," said Charles, a 20-year veteran. "I've seen parents in little leagues go crazy and you know what, it's a game."

Moreno agrees, saying all umpires can do is try to keep everyone under control.

"We just do the best that we can and if something happens, we just protect ourselves and make sure our safety's first and make sure anything is okay," he said.

The umpires were saddened to hear of Bieniewicz's death, saying it should be a sign to others of what can happen when a competitive fire gets the best of you.

"Just a message to them parents and coaches and players: safety comes first," said Charles. "It ain't all about winning. It ain't all about the call you think went bad for you.

"It's not worth taking a life if it's a kid, a player, an umpire, anybody."

Clubs and soccer facilities like the Hope Soccer Complex say they have a zero-tolerance policy for both physical and verbal abuse toward referees. General manager Julie Mullin says her staff tries to remind players, coaches and fans that the referee has the last word.

Joe Gadza says it also helps referees to stay in shape. Keeping up with play and having a good vantage point when making a call can minimize disputes.

"I don't think too much about safety when I'm out there," he said. "But you do realize there's a possibility that a player could get upset with you and do something, so you just have to read the situation and just put yourself in a position to not get in a bad situation.

"I don't think we're going to be reffing scared," he said. "I think we'll be more aware of situations around us."

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