If one lesson can be taken from the tragic death of a volunteer soccer referee this week, it is that violence cannot be tolerated in organized youth athletics. Not by players, coaches, parents, officials or spectators. A culture that emphasizes competition, not recreation, is too pervasive, and it is dangerous.
In the most recent incident, a 17-year-old soccer player has been charged with third-degree felony homicide by assault after he reportedly punched Ricardo Portillo, an experienced volunteer referee, who later died.
The cost of one moment of uncontrolled anger will be terrible. Portillo, 46, left a family behind to mourn him. The life of the young suspect will never be the same, no matter what the legal outcome.
Just about anyone involved in youth sports for any length of time has witnessed violence or threats on the playing fields and courts or from the sidelines. While organized sports can provide a wonderful experience for children and teens in camaraderie, sportsmanship, teamwork, discipline and just plain fun, which should be the objective it also attracts people who let their competitiveness or emotions get out of control.
Across the country, outraged parents have assaulted umpires and referees or gotten into fistfights with opposing parents. Referees' tires have been slashed. Parents, coaches and players have been charged by police in numerous incidents. A Sports Illustrated for Kids survey found that 57 percent of the 3,000 young players reported there is too much violence in youth sports, and 74 percent said they had witnessed out-of-control behavior by adults at their games.
Several coaches of college and Olympic teams recently have been in the news for abusing players or cheating. In professional sports, NFL players have been encouraged to injure opposing players, and coaches are accused of forcing players to practice and play with concussions.
It doesn't help that television, video games and movies continually portray violence of all kinds but ignore the human tragedy it leaves behind. The movie hero jumps up after a beating or a car crash with hardly a scrape. But real people are much more fragile. One blow to the head or neck can cause permanent, irreparable damage or even death. Police reports say Portillo was struck just once in the side of the head as he was recording a yellow-card infraction against the 17-year-old.
Adults parents, coaches and fans are models for youthful athletes. If winning is all that matters, the violence will continue.