At a huge soccer complex in Lancaster the other day, thousands of players, coaches, officials, parents and spectators took time out from a national-qualifying soccer tournament to give a silent tribute to Ricardo Portillo.
“News travels fast in the soccer world,” said Dave Stewart, a soccer referee from Murrieta who was at the Lancaster National Soccer Center on Sunday. “Everybody there knew what it was about.”
Portillo, a volunteer soccer referee in Utah, died Saturday from injuries he suffered in a recreational league game. A 17-year-old player apparently was so angry about Portillo giving him a yellow card that he punched the referee in the head. Portillo’s brain gradually swelled and he fell into a coma a few hours later. By Saturday, at the age of 46, he was dead.
Stories like this disgust me. Sports are supposed to teach discipline, teamwork and respect. Portillo was just a guy who was trying to nurture those concepts and allow the kids a chance to play.
But this teenager apparently didn’t get it. He let his uncontrolled anger get the best of him and now his life is ruined, along with that of Portillo's family that includes three daughters left without a father.
“It makes me sad,” Stewart said. “No matter what the situation, there is never a reason that your emotions should be so high that it would make you want to do something like that.”
For the last three years, Stewart has been the president of the Temecula Valley Soccer Referees Association, a group that assigns about 150 referees to all levels of soccer competition from Lake Elsinore to Hemet. He is a referee himself and knows first-hand what happens on the soccer pitch.
The weekend incident is “extremely rare,” he said, but it doesn’t mean youth and recreational league games don’t have their bad moments.
For instance, last year Stewart’s 15-year-old son, whom he described as well-qualified to officiate youth matches, was refereeing a 13-under championship game when a player got so angry that he shoved him. The game was terminated; the police were called; the player was suspended from the league for six months and ordered to attend a referees’ clinic to learn the rules.
Soccer referees in the Temecula Valley association range from ages 14 to 60. Beginning referees can make $40 to $60 in a weekend, Stewart said. They go through 16 hours of beginners training and can get more training during the course of a season.
One of the things they learn is to stand their distance from a player whenever he’s yellow-carded for unsportsmanlike conduct. But sometimes even that doesn’t work.
Recruiting referees isn’t a problem, Stewart added, but retaining them is more difficult. The major causes for their departure are the time commitment involved and a decline in interest.
But the most consistent reason is because of the treatment that referees often get from parents and coaches. He’s stood on the sideline many times, Stewart said, and heard the verbal abuse. He often has wanted to respond, but it’s not the referee’s place to escalate the situation.
“The referee is the boss of a game and where in life is it OK to yell at your boss?” Stewart said. “Parents may be at the core of the problem.”
I asked Stewart to respond because this is a soccer story and he is close to the game. But my questions could easily have been directed to the head of officials for football, basketball and baseball. All sports have their dark side, and at this level it starts with call-and-react.
“I always say that parents, coaches and players need to be part of the solution and not the problem,” Stewart said. “And to do that, they should attend one of our referee clinics. They’ll learn the rules of the game and how it should be played. And they may even want to be referees.”
It sounds like a good idea ---- anything to prevent tragedies like the one in Utah last week.