The death last weekend of a youth soccer referee who had been punched by a 17-year-old player is tragic in a number of ways.
First, of course, is the death of a 46-year-old father of three daughters. Ricardo Portillo died last Saturday night, a week after he was punched in the face by a player who was upset with Portillo for issuing him a yellow card warning for egregious violation of the rules.
Shortly after the incident, Portillo complained of nausea and started vomiting blood. He was conscious when an ambulance arrived, but slipped into a coma shortly after he reached the hospital as a result of swelling in his brain. He never regained consciousness.
The teenager who struck him was booked into juvenile detention on suspicion of aggravated assault, but authorities reportedly were awaiting autopsy results and considering additional charges after Portillo’s death.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. After learning of Portillo’s death, Pete McCabe, a veteran referee recalled the injuries he suffered at the hands of a semi-pro football player for years ago. At the end of a game in Rochester, N.Y., the player slammed his helmet into McCabe’s face, fracturing his skull in several places and breaking almost every bone in his face. McCabe said he recalled thinking, “it’s going to happen again, and someone is going to get killed.”
Sadly, he was right.
How many other similar incidents have occurred involving sports officials and players? What drives players to that kind of behavior?
Those questions should be of serious concern to every coach who encourages aggressive behavior among his players, every parent who goes ballistic on the sidelines and every unruly fan who feels compelled to scream from the stands at players, coaches or officials. No matter how heated the game, coaches, parents, fans and players all need to be reminded that there is a limit to competitive zeal. This isn’t a war; it’s a game. The other people on the field or the court are not your enemies; they are players and coaches and officials — people with families, friends, dreams and, yes, flaws, just like you.
The death of Ricardo Portillo, who loved soccer and loved working as a referee, is unbelievably sad and frightening. How much madder would that fan who chased after Kansas University coach Bill Self in Ames, Iowa, have had to be to cause a serious injury, especially if he hadn’t caught the attention of security officers.
Better security may be part of the answer here, but armed guards shouldn’t be needed at a youth soccer game, like the one being officiated by Portillo. The Utah incident should serve as a call to action for coaches, parents, players and organizers to set a new standard of behavior that demands sportsmanship and doesn’t tolerate aggressive actions.
It’s a game. Players should want to win, but they should give the game and everyone involved in that game the same respect they deserve and want for themselves.