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“I was physically assaulted during a game”: This Toronto soccer referee says abuse from parents is at an all-time high

North Toronto Soccer’s Adrian Tanjala on Ontario Soccer’s decision to have referees wear body cameras and why kids’ sports are starting to feel like a scene out of Kicking and Screaming

By Alex Cyr| Photography by Joshua Best
“I was physically assaulted during a game”: This Toronto soccer referee says abuse from parents is at an all-time high

Last week, Ontario Soccer launched a pilot project that will require some referees to strap on 5-by-6-centimetre body cameras to record abuse directed at them during games. The goal is to deter the increasingly rampant bullying and mistreatment of referees by coaches and parents, particularly in the under-9 and under-11 age groups. Ontario Soccer claims that this behaviour has contributed to a major loss of referees: from 8,300 in 2019 to less than 5,000 this season. Adrian Tanjala is the head referee at the North Toronto Soccer in Yonge-Eglinton. The 21-year-old, who lives in Vaughn, says that mistreatment of refs is at an all-time high. We asked him whether body cams are the solution and why he thinks we’re primed to enter the peak era of Canadian soccer—if only we can all get along.


You’re a busy guy—you have a full-time job as a cystic fibrosis researcher at Sick Kids Hospital and still ref on the side. Why keep soccer in the mix? I’ve been playing since I was six. It wouldn’t feel right to not be involved with that community.

What position did you play? I grew up as a competitive goalie. But, when I turned 14, the other players were all getting taller and I wasn’t, which put an end to my competitive career. So, at 15, I became a referee. I’m 5’7 now, and it’s tough to be smaller even as a ref—big guys have an easier time projecting authority. I have to speak with a lot of confidence to get any respect.

It seems like respect is hard to come by on the pitch these days. Has that always been the case? To a certain degree, yes. I remember when I was 13, a parent encouraged the players on my team to follow one referee, an older man, to his car—they claimed he had made an incorrect penalty kick decision. I didn’t partake. But it’s definitely worse now than I’ve ever seen it.

And parents are the main culprits? Yes. Part of the issue is that we can’t do much to deter them. There are well-defined disciplinary measures for players. If they act up, you give them a yellow card. Two yellow cards, and they’re out of the game. With parents, we can kick them off the field, but we can’t make them leave the stands. They know that they can belittle referees without repercussion. The old-school approach would be to ignore the parents completely. But I’m not a fan of that because it’s not a long-term solution.

The image that comes to mind is a caffeine-infused Will Ferrell in Kicking and Screaming, losing his cool and yelling at the kids. Is that what you’re seeing? The most common thing is ridiculous insults. For example, I wear glasses on the field. That’s cannon fodder for a lot of parents: “Get your prescription checked” and “Nice call, four-eyes” are classics. Like anyone, I sometimes make mistakes, but these grown adults don’t need to point them out using playground insults—a little empathy would be nice. It gets worse, though. I was physically assaulted in July of 2021. I was refereeing a U18 recreational match on my own, and a fist fight broke out between two players. I sent them both off the field but got caught in a much larger brawl between the two teams and the parents. I was struck several times before leaving, and players and parents followed me to my car shouting obscenities.

Last week, Ontario Soccer launched a pilot project that will require some referees to strap on body cameras to record abuse directed at them during games. Adrian Tanjala, the head referee at North Toronto Soccer Club, has officiated multiple games a week since turning 15. He says that mistreatment of refs is at an all-time high.

Sounds pretty serious. It’s even worse for women. I was at a game last year where someone used sexist language toward a female ref. So far, nobody has gotten physically hurt in any of these altercations—we’ve been able to de-escalate. But, the way things are trending, it feels like we’re one game away from that. Now, when I referee, I feel anxious. I think that will stay with me for the rest of my career.

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Why do you think this hostility is on the rise? I think the pandemic has something to do with it. From what I understand, taking people out of their social context for years on end hurt their ability to deal with others. There were no soccer games between March 2020 and July 2021. People lost their sense of how to act appropriately.

Is it just me, or do these reactions seem over-the-top for kids’ soccer? I’m not sure why it’s particularly bad in that age group, but I think people see their teams as a core part of their identity. Even in amateur soccer, apparently. Sports can bring out a lot of passion, but we need to teach people to deal with that in a positive way.

Do you think body cams are the answer? It’s a good idea, but I don’t think it will work on its own. The onus is on Ontario Soccer and individual clubs to sanction parents who misbehave. I think monetary penalties would be a step in the right direction, and organizing bodies have to restrict participation when necessary. Nobody wants to ban someone from their kid’s game, but when they’re ruining it for everyone else, we have no choice. I also like the idea of having conversations with parents to help them understand that their behaviour is pushing referees away. Personally, I have come close to quitting. I stayed because I feel like I have the opportunity to actively help create a culture of respect.

What role do coaches have in all this? Coaches can deal with parents more readily than referees because the power dynamic is different—they establish how a team should behave. Coaches who set up a zero-tolerance policy for mistreatment make a huge difference. At the same time, sometimes coaches participate in abuse and parents follow suit. In 2020, referees in Ontario gained the ability to give yellow cards to coaches, which is good—it signals to the crowd that they’ve misbehaved—but we still can’t kick them out.

Let’s hope the situation improves, because isn’t it a great time for soccer in Canada otherwise? Totally. The World Cup is coming to Canada in 2026, there’s the new Canadian Premier League and League1 in Ontario has expanded massively. Plus, we’re finally getting a women’s league with Project 8. It’s a long-overdue opportunity for female players and officials—it’s wild that we have done as well as we have on world stages without a domestic league for so long.

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And with three years to go until the next world cup, do you think Canada will make it past the qualifying round? I don’t want to jinx it, but absolutely. My hope is that we get in automatically as the host country. Regardless, I think we have a great shot after our performance at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. We may have lost the three games, but Team Canada got to witness world class soccer. And part of being truly world class is having players and fans who are respectful. That should be Canada’s brand on the world stage—and it starts at the minor levels.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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