Reports that a single punch from a teenage soccer player killed a referee in a recreational league in Utah sent shock waves across the sporting world. The shock, of course, was from the fact that the man died. It could be no shock that the punch occurred — simply because reports of violent outbreaks at youth sporting events have become commonplace. Too often, they’re written off as isolated incidents or the product of excess competitiveness. Now, with the death earlier this month of Utah referee Ricardo Portillo, the sports world has to start treating violent outbursts as a problem in and of itself.
Portillo, 46, a furniture company worker and volunteer referee, was hit by an irate 17-year-old player, who was angry after a call went against him. The assailant, whose name has not been released, now faces a third-degree felony homicide by assault charge.
Much of the public’s reaction to Portillo’s death has focused on declining respect for officials. But the problem goes beyond mistreatment of referees. Professional sports leagues now seem to accept — and thus teach younger players — that a bit of violence here and there is a natural and unavoidable part of sports. Whether it’s fights in hockey or bench-clearing brawls in baseball, violence that’s unconnected to the game is wrongly viewed through a forgiving lens, as a way of standing up for teammates or showing one’s passion for winning.
But such violence can have a terrible toll, and the sports community has to stop minimizing it and start cracking down on offenders. Coaches at all levels must do a better job reminding players that self-restraint is a necessary facet of athletic competition, and thus immediately benching any player who acts out in a violent manner. But they also could use the help of the professional sports leagues that set the standards of behavior from which young players often take their cues.