A volunteer soccer coach for a city-sponsored youth league was ejected from a game after two referees ordered him to stop giving instructions in Spanish to several Hispanic players during a match.
Officials for the Optimist Club, which oversees the league, confirmed this week that the incident occurred, but called it a misunderstanding. They added that the club has no rule banning players or coaches from speaking a foreign language during games, and is investigating the incident.
But ejected coach Ruben Albarracin said he was sanctioned for talking in Spanish to his players about tactics, as he usually does.
"I had never felt discriminated before," said Albarracin, the coach of Dallas FC, whose 12 players range from 14 to 18, and are mostly immigrants or the children of immigrants from Latin America, where soccer is a national sport.
Albarracin's assistant coach Carlos Perez said, "We were told there was a new rule that we could not speak Spanish. We told the referees that we wanted to see that rule in writing and that's when things got ugly." Perez witnessed the incident but, unlike Albarracin, was not sanctioned.
The Sun Sentinel was unable to contact the referees.
Optimist Club board member Geri Kelly said, "During a meeting, we asked coaches to be careful and, for the benefit of the majority, speak in a language that everyone understands. We have no rule [against speaking Spanish]. How could this be a rule?"
"This is a youth recreational program, with players of different races and nationalities, and we want all the players to enjoy the benefit of the instructions offered by their coaches," she added. "We want everybody to understand."
The Dec. 8 incident occurred during the first half of a match between Dallas FC and the San Jose Earthquakes, youth teams modeled after two Major League Soccer clubs, and that play at the Cooper City Sports Complex. Albarracin and Perez said that when they refused to stop addressing their players in Spanish, referee Justin Arner Rose and another unidentified referee stopped the game and ejected the head coach from the field.
Both coaches identified the Cooper City league chief arbitrator Peggy Arner Rose, who is the referee's mother, as the person who has told referees to enforce the no-Spanish rule. She declined to comment.
Jorge Pujol, whose son Alex plays for Dallas FC, said he doesn't understand why coaches or players would be discouraged from speaking their native language during a game.
"Soccer is an international game. I don't understand how a coach can be prohibited from speaking in Spanish to a player," Pujol said. "It's not right."
Albarracin and Perez said referees have also tried to discourage players from speaking among themselves in Spanish.
Optimist Club leaders say this isn't true; they say they have told coaches to be careful after an incident last year when a coach speaking in Hebrew told some of his players to break the legs of a rival team during a game.
"A parent who understood what was said complained and we expelled that coach from our league," said Pablo Lopez, coordinator of the Optimist Club boys soccer program. "That's why we've asked our coaches to be careful."
Albarracin said he is careful to speak in Spanish individually to his players who also speak the language. He added that in the heat of a game, it's natural slip into Spanish.
Sports experts contacted by the Sun Sentinel say that coaches should try to speak in a language that everyone understands when addressing players or during a game.
"But I don't see a problem speaking in another language to an individual player whose first language isn't English. In that case the team should provide a translator," said William Ricard, a Cuban-American youth baseball coach from Pembroke. "Especially in a place as diverse as South Florida."
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