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Ricardo Portillo represented all that is good about youth sports. He was a soccer referee in Taylorsville, Utah, until he died May 4, a week after he was injured in a soccer match.
Portillo had refereed in the Hispanic soccer league outside Salt Lake City for eight years. He was passionate about soccer and believed he was an important contributor to his community by being a soccer referee for young people. He loved the game and the opportunity for young people to be focused on a soccer field.
However, this 48-year-old referee’s life was cut short when he died as a result of an assault he received from a 17-year-old soccer player on the field. Portillo had just issued the 17-year-old player a yellow caution card for an infraction on the field. The player retaliated against the referee and hit him in the face. Portillo went down to ground. When he was taken to a hospital for treatment, it was found he had internal head injuries. He died a week later. The unnamed player has been charged with homicide by assault, a count issued when an attack unintentionally causes death.
This was not the first time Portillo was injured while functioning as a referee. He also had endured a broken leg and broken ribs due to physical assaults he received as a referee. His daughters begged him to stop refereeing but he refused because of his belief and passion concerning what he was providing for his community. He did not want to give in to the isolated evil events that happen even in youth soccer. Portillo believed his role as a referee was vital to the opportunities youth soccer offered to the young people of his community.
This event also highlights the negative challenges of youth sports, where players and parents can be out of control. These negative events inflicted by a few people make it difficult to provide for those young people who want an opportunity for fun and competition.
Youth sports leagues continually have their hands full trying to keep players and parents under control so all players can enjoy the benefits of their chosen sport. The league in which Portillo coached had a zero tolerance policy toward violent behavior in games. This is an important first step. However, youth leagues also need to be more proactive in creating a healthy environment for games to be played. Many sports leagues require that all players and parents participate in an education program helps participants understand and endorse proper behavior on and around the playing field.
These types of educational experiences help to build a positive expectation that youth sports will be played in a healthy atmosphere. They also empower other players, parents and coaches to create a positive environment for competition. It is not just for the referee to enforce the rules and set a positive environment for play but rather all participants can, and should, set the positive tone.
In the tragic case of Portillo, it was not the other referees who were supposed to keep him safe in his role as referee. Rather it was the coaches and other players who set the tone of respect toward the referee. When a player starts to cross the boundary of inappropriate behavior, other players intervene. In this particular case, if the players’ on the offender’s teams would have been properly trained and empowered, they would have separated the offending player from the referee before any violence could have occurred.
This is the challenge in every youth and adult sport. When an environment of mutual respect is intentionally created, violence and inappropriate behavior diminishes significantly. When sports leagues leave this to chance, a referee, player, coach or parent often is the victim of violence. For Portillo, his passion for soccer put him in the position to be a victim of player violence which can’t be tolerated. Every youth sports league needs to re-examine their policies and actions concerning creating an environment of respect on the playing field.
Dr. Keith Wilson is a performance consultant in Hardin County and owner of The Wilson Center for Performance. He is performance anxiety consultant to the Hardin County Schools Performing Arts Center. He can be reached at TheWilsonCenter7@aol.com.