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Referee critically injured after punch from soccer player, police say

TAYLORSVILLE — A man refereeing a youth soccer game over the weekend remained hospitalized in critical condition Tuesday after police say he was punched in the head by a 17-year-old player he had just given a yellow card.

The 46-year-old Salt Lake resident, whose name was not released, was refereeing a match at Eisenhower Junior High School, 4351 S. Redwood Road, about 11:30 a.m. on Saturday. He believed a 17-year-old player had just committed a serious foul and gave him a yellow card.

The player reacted by turning and punching the referee, said Unified Police Lt. Justin Hoyal.

The man was taken to a local hospital for what was initially believed to be a minor injury, Hoyal said. But after he arrived, his condition worsened. The man suffered severe internal head injuries and was admitted to the hospital in critical condition, he said.

On Monday, officers arrested the teen for investigation of aggravated assault and booked him into juvenile detention. Hoyal said the player did not use a weapon but is being investigated for that potential charge because of the severity of the injury.

The teams playing were not affiliated with the Utah Youth Soccer Association, which represents about 50,000 players across the state, and the referee was not believed to be a member of the Utah State Soccer Referee Committee, a group that represents about 1,500 soccer referees in Utah.

Several Latino leagues use the school on weekends. A spokesman with the Granite School District said Tuesday that the club Fut Continental had reserved the field during that time on Saturday. A call to a team representative placed by the Deseret News was not returned Tuesday.

Scott Harward is the state soccer referee administrator. He has been a referee for 34 years in Utah. As of Tuesday, he said even he didn't know the name of the referee who was attacked.

He also noted that in his three decades of refereeing recreation leagues in Utah, he has only heard of a player assaulting an official three or four times.

"We read about them on an international stage. But as far as players going after referees, that's very rare here in Utah," he said. "We'll have some minor abusive situations, two or three a year, where a coach will go out in the middle of a field after a game and maybe verbally abuse a referee, get out of control. But it's very rare to hear of a players actually physically assaulting a referee."

In the Utah Youth Soccer Association and its adult league counterpart, there is a zero-tolerance policy for abusing referees. Players can be suspended for attacking other players or referees for five, 10 or 20 years or even banned from the league. That ban carries from state to state in sanctioned leagues.

Referees are taught to try and be as "human" as possible on the field, Harward said. They will face criticism from players, coaches and fans alike. Even if they make a call that is 100 percent correct, they often still face criticism from one side, Harward said.

While most referees in the state can handle passionate fans who like to yell at them, he believes the amount of verbal abuse referees have had to withstand has increased over the years.

"I think the thing we see most of is verbal abuse," he said. "We've seen a decline in civility and respect for one human being to another. Verbally, I think people are more verbally abusive than they were 10 years ago.

"I don't know why, but for some reason, at least on the soccer field, people seem to be OK with saying things to referees that wouldn't be acceptable in any other environment — work, personal life. People just seem kind of get bent out of shape and think it's OK to yell at referees," Harward said.

Shawn Halladay is the state disciplinary chairman for the Referee Association. He has been refereeing soccer matches since 1980 and concurs the number of times a player attacks a referee is rare.

"It is rare. As a referee, you always hear jokes about backing your car in so you can make a quick escape. But (an attack on the) field, extremely rare," he said.

Halladay has been confronted twice after a game by players, and was kicked by a player during one of those confrontations. The last time he remembers a referee being hit in his league was five years ago. But Halladay said the verbal abuse that referees take each game, either from players or parents watching their children play, has remained.

"Most of it is parents, 40-year-old men verbally abusing and threatening 15-year-old referees in youth games. What concerns me is that behavior gets translated. Kids see their parents acting that way and they think it's their right and some just take it a step beyond," he said.

Halladay said even at Real Salt Lake games, children watch their parents yell at referees because they believe they are entitled to do so.

"(They think) it's my right to abuse this person, it doesn't matter if it's a kid or man or woman, they just abuse. And at some point it has to have an effect on the kids."

Unified police are asking for eyewitnesses, or people who may have filmed Saturday's incident on their cellphones, to call them at 801-743-5913.