Fur flies over dogs at soccer games


soccerBy Joe Tash


A dispute over the presence of dogs at children’s recreational soccer games in Carmel Valley has raised the hackles of parents and soccer club officials, leading to heated sideline arguments and the cancellation of at least one match at half-time.

Officials with the 2,600-player Del Mar Carmel Valley Soccer Club said this week they are working with the city of San Diego, a parent who has questioned the club’s prohibition on dogs at soccer games, and other experts and entities to work out the dispute.

But if the conflict is not resolved, it could result in additional confrontations and stoppage of play at upcoming games.

At the root of the disagreement is a conflict between city of San Diego regulations which allow dogs at public parks as long as they are on a leash and under control, and club rules which prohibit dogs at any league practice or game.

The on-field arguments have concerned two different parents who brought their dogs to Carmel Creek Park to watch their sons play soccer several times during October. On one occasion, a referee reportedly yelled at one of the parents and told him to remove his dog immediately.

On other occasions, a coach, who is also a referee trainer for the league, argued with the parents on his own team about dogs being too close to the field. At least once, a referee called a game off at half-time when a parent did not remove her dog from the field.

One of the parents, Maureen Stratton, said she believes city law takes precedence over the club’s rules, and that dogs should be allowed if properly restrained.

“I want the harassment to stop and the league to abide by the Municipal Code that’s set up by the public for the taxpayers who pay for the property. It’s real simple, follow the law,” Stratton said. “Don’t bully and harass people to follow your rules that are not in line with law and rules of the park.”

Raffaella Gunay, whose husband and father have also had verbal exchanges with a referee and their team’s coach regarding the presence of their weimaraner dog at the field in recent weeks, takes issue both with the club’s stand on dogs at the park, and what she called bullying behavior by club officials.

“I see it as an infringement on civil liberties,” said Gunay.

City regulations do allow dogs at city parks, said Clay Bingham, a deputy director with San Diego’s Parks and Recreation Department.

If the referee did yell at parents as reported, Bingham said, “That’s not acceptable. Referees don’t confront the public in our parks.”

Dogs aren’t allowed onto playing fields when a game is in progress, or to disturb people at the park or be off-leash, said Bingham. But he said the soccer club doesn’t have the authority to ban dogs from the park.

He said staff from his office would be working with the club and Stratton to work out an acceptable agreement.

“These people have to stop yelling at each other and making unilateral decisions because they’re on a city park and it’s the city that will adjudicate the issue,” Bingham said.

Mark Friedman, the coach of the team both Stratton’s and Gunay’s sons play on, said that in spite of city rules, the club and its referees are responsible for the safety of players. All families that join the league agree to abide by its many rules, which include a prohibition on dogs at games or practices.

Friedman himself has had several heated discussions with Stratton and with Gunay’s husband and father at the team’s games, and said he has supported the referee’s decision to stop play when the parents did not remove their dogs.

He conceded it was a mistake for the referee to directly admonish Gunay’s husband on the sidelines. However, he said the two dogs owned by Stratton and Gunay had been growling and snapping at each other, posing a potential safety hazard. (Gunay said the two dogs only barked at each for a few seconds, but were under control.)

The club’s general rule is that dogs must be kept at least 10 yards from the field at all times, said Friedman, and that most people, even those just passing through the park, readily comply.

“This is an extreme example, and it’s never happened before that I can recall. And I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Friedman said.

Other parents on the team are upset with Stratton and Gunay for insisting on bringing their dogs, which has led to play being interrupted. “Two parents are ruining it for a lot of kids,” he said.

Club President Marcia Turek said she’s hoping the issue can be worked out so that safety is maintained and the games can be played as scheduled.

If every dog owner brought his or her pet to the field on game day, she said, “Oh my goodness, it would be crazy… I love dogs but I have to leave mine home.”

In a statement released Tuesday, the club said its “no dogs” rule remains in effect, and that it hopes to resolve the dispute with Stratton this week.