I heard this blurb while listening to television news this morning, and it hit me right in the gut:
Ricardo Portillo has died.
Portillo died because he was a soccer referee, a volunteer referee, for a youth league.
Portillo was refereeing a game on April 27 in Taylorville, Utah. After a routine scuffle in the box prior to a corner kick, Portillo cautioned the 17-year old goalkeeper. As the referee was writing the name in his book, the player punched Portillo in the side of the head. Later that evening, Portillo collapsed into a coma, and yesterday, he died.
This ‘graf from the Independent (unrelated rant: why did I need to read a British paper to find a decent article on this?) sums up the sources of my sadness:
Portillo’s family said he had been attacked before, and Johanna Portillo said she and her sisters begged their father to stop refereeing because of the risk from angry players, but he continued because he loved soccer.
“It was his passion,” she said. “We could not tell him no.”
We pride ourselves as a nation of volunteers, and while a youth soccer ref doesn’t have as much regard as a volunteer firefighter, now we must consider both to be life-threatening jobs. ”He continued because he loved soccer.”
Part of me still holds on to the patriotic illusion that things like this don’t happen in the U.S. Here, we pride ourselves on our sportsmanship. We shake hands after a match, not just before. The problems with racism seen in Europe and elsewhere seem to naive American eyes like they come from across the ages, not just across the ocean. The revelations that our sports idols use performance enhancing drugs (looking at you, Lance Armstrong, Mark McGuire), disturb us so much that some would rather redefine cheating than acknowledge that these guys broke the rules. We play fair.
While Riccardo Portillo’s death will soon be forgotten, I hope at least a handful of coaches and parents will reconsider how we’re teaching young people. While this particular league had a zero-tolerance policy on violence, verbal abuse of referees seemed to have been condoned. There’s only a thin line between a threat and an action, especially if you’re an testosterone-filled teenager, and we shouldn’t allow emotions to escalate anywhere near that line. We must reiterate to young players especially that the referees are essential parts of the game, like the lines on the pitch, not opponents to be defeated.
As a side note, this is also a sad reminder of the dangers of head injuries. If Portillo had been assessed with a concussion immediately after the attack and received prompt medical care, he might have lived.