Only 23 states have legislation protecting sports officials against assault. Massachusetts is not one of them. The Commonwealth, long known for the outrageous behavior of fans gone wild at youth sports events, is well suited to become the 24th state. And we’re not the only ones in need of clear rules to help keep us from getting dangerously out of hand at what most people see as enjoyable events featuring friendly competition.
As of this month, Massachusetts can no longer lay claim to the most disturbing youth sports death in the United States. The specter of Thomas Junta, who murdered Michael Costin, another father, at a youth hockey game in Reading, has hung over the Commonwealth since 2000. But a more alarming death just occurred on a youth soccer field in Utah. Ricardo Portillo, a 46-year-old soccer referee, was punched in the head in suburban Salt Lake City on a field at a junior high school on Saturday, April 27th. He quickly slipped into a coma and died on May 4th.
Especially disturbing is that it wasn’t a parent, or even an adult coach, who punched him. Instead, it was a 17-year-old — a soccer-playing teenager who was so angry that he received a yellow card by Portillo that he physically attacked him.
Altercations between parents and coaches and referees aren’t that unusual. Another example just last week in New Jersey is the 43-year-old Little League baseball coach who slapped a 17-year-old umpire who ejected him from a game played by boys 10 to 12-years-old.
What is unusual is that young players are now getting in on the action. We need to realize these are not rare isolated incidents. This Utah teen isn’t alone.
Many consider American football to be more violent than soccer (“football” to the rest of the world). But I spent nine months studying competitive youth soccer in the U.S. for my forthcoming book, “Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture,” so I know how competitive parents and children can get when it comes to this sport. At the younger age levels, with players in elementary school, referees were often young teens. The professional youth soccer coaches I met who lead grade schoolers frequently complained about the inexperience of the refs.
In turn, some parents of the teen refs confessed to me that they worried about their kids’ physical safety. One mom who has an 11-year-old son who plays on a travel youth soccer team also has a 17-year-old daughter who works as a soccer referee. She told me, “I won’t let my daughter ref a game unless my husband is there because the parents are nuts.” Now she also needs to worry about the coaches and, depressingly, the players themselves.
It’s not just soccer. At some youth dance competitions judges’ names aren’t published in programs or announced at events, for fear of retribution by angry parents. When I judged a New England child beauty pageant in conjunction with my research I was told I did not have to speak with any parents after and it might be best if I left immediately following the awards.
After yet another recent death of a volunteer ref following a loss of a game for his 15-year-old son’s youth soccer club (this time in the Netherlands, again at the hands of teen players), Sepp Blatter, president of international soccer’s governing body FIFA, issued a statement that included the following line: “Football is a mirror of society and, sadly, the same ills that afflict society — in this case violence — also manifest themselves in our game.”
We need to understand that soccer and other competitive youth activities reflect something very important about our society. The increase in extreme violence by teens against referees is indicative of unprecedented levels of competitive pressures effecting children, starting at younger ages than ever. Not all children lash out like this, of course. Most of the more than three dozen kids I interviewed had positive experiences. They dealt with the stress of competition by focusing on friendships, lucky charms, and awards.
It is the responsibility of adults involved with competitive youth activities — parents, coaches and teachers, and judges and referees — to put things in perspective for children. They need to explain that losing a game — even a high-stakes game — when you’re a kid will not negatively impact the rest of your life — unless you exhibit impulsive, unsportsmanlike or violent behavior.
Other adults, like legislators, can also act. Citizens of the Commonwealth, and others from the 27 states that currently do not offer protection against assault specifically for sports officials should rectify this (for a list, see this one compiled by the National Association of Sports Officials). We don’t want our children in Massachusetts, or anywhere in the U.S., to have to deal with the aftermath of a situation like that of Michael Costin or Ricardo Cortillo. The competitive stakes aren’t worth it.