Hilary Levey Friedman: Altercations between parents and coaches and referees aren’t that unusual. What is unusual is that young players are now getting in on the action. In this May 2, 2013, file photo, a family member points to an undated photo of Ricardo Portillo, center. Portillo died on Saturday, a week after police say a 17-year-old player struck him in the head during a recreational league soccer game after the referee called a penalty against him. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

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.

[Soccer] is a mirror of society and, sadly, the same ills that afflict society — in this case violence — also manifest themselves in our game.

– Sepp Blatter, FIFA president

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.

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.

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.


The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Futo Buddy

    ban soccer! think of the children. how much soccer violence must we endure before we can get some common sense bans?

  • Nancy Lo

    As someone who has only a fleeting interest in sports, I just shake my head in disbelief. How can anybody take a game this seriously? But they do. Sad.

  • crescentfang

    Why would you need a law banning assault on a coach when we have laws banning assault generally? I fail to see the difference.

    The soccer games for younger kids didn’t tolerate violence or interference from parents on the sidelines. That is because the it is still treated as a game, played for fun. It is the high school level coaches who make a career of coaching that push the “winning is everything attitude”. What we should do is go back to the “everybody plays” gym classes we had when I was a kid and spend less on the high pressure school teams. Bad sportsmanship is not something the schools should be teaching.

  • David F

    Just make some more laws… Really?

    How about we enforce the laws we have?

    Assault is already illegal, murder is already illegal, additional laws making assault or murder of certain classes of people are silly and pointless. To suggest we need a special law protecting sports officials against assault trivializes the fact that a man was killed over a game. Simply hold the 17 year old 100% accountable for his actions and put him on trial for murder. You don’t need a special law to do that.

    On a side note we should also stop this everyone gets a trophy business that’s been going on for many years in elementary and middle schools. When I was a child in school if you didn’t run the fastest in the race you didn’t get a ribbon. Now everyone gets a ribbon and no one learns that you can’t always be the winner. You don’t learn good sportsmanship by winning everything. Learning to lose gracefully is just as important as learning to win gracefully.

  • Futo Buddy

    ban soccer. ban all the other team sports far too many have died. kids are much safer turkey hunting and doing organised youth shooting sports

  • sbobett bola

    You Can Definitely See Your Expertise Within The Work You Write. sbobet bola The World Hopes For More Passionate Writers Like You Who Are Not Afraid To Mention How They Believe. All The Time Follow Your Heart.

  • Felix

    Have Noticed
    Online Degree
    Is Getting Preferred
    Because Obtaining
    Your College
    Online Has
    Changed Into A
    Popular Method
    For Many People. Numerous
    People Have Certainly
    Had A
    Possibility To
    Attend A
    College Or University Nevertheless
    Seek The
    Earning Possibilities
    And A
    Better Job
    That A Bachelor
    Degree Gives.
    Still Others
    Might Have A
    In One Field
    But Would
    Like To
    Pursue Anything
    They Now
    An Interest In.