The 17-year-old goalkeeper whose punch allegedly killed referee Ricardo Portillo surely will be punished for his crime.
Yet the impact of his actions during a recreational soccer game in Taylorsville will resonate throughout Utah and beyond, and should hit home to all of us. As extreme as this incident is, I can’t dismiss it as an aberration. Portillo’s death should be sobering to players, coaches and fans of sports at every level.
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This man should not have had to die for me to make the point that referees deserve better treatment. It may be an exponential jump from screaming in the 35th row of a stadium to launching a physical attack on the field, but the same culture drives those reactions.
Referees understand they have a thankless job. The goal of any good official is to go unnoticed in a game, which says something about the nature of the work.
But when the mindset of parents and fans from youth leagues to the pros is to protest every call, being invisible becomes just about impossible. Whether they’re full-time employees in the NBA or, like Portillo, providing a community service and remaining involved in a game they love, referees are held to a ridiculously high standard.
They know what they’re getting into, subjecting themselves to abuse, but that hardly justifies the way they’re treated. With his head down, recording the yellow-card violation, Portillo apparently never saw the punch coming. That goalkeeper is not the only perpetrator in this environment, though. He’s just the one who will be formally charged.
Soccer fans in Uruguay once stormed the field and killed a referee. In the past two years, two referees have been killed by soccer players in the Netherlands. But the way referees generally are treated is a societal issue, not exclusive to soccer.
There’s a mob mentality that too often takes over in games. The most shocking scene I’ve ever witnessed in a sporting event came in 1980 when BYU defensive lineman Junior Filiaga punched a referee during a football game in Logan. Almost as disturbing to me, though, was the way Jazz fans reacted in Game 4 of the 2007 Western Conference finals against San Antonio at EnergySolutions Arena, where repeated, derogatory chants and other actions contributed to an ugly, embarrassing scene.
It did not help that Jazz coach Jerry Sloan and guard Derek Fisher were ejected in the fourth quarter for complaining about calls, but the fans — a sizable percentage of them, anyway — made things much worse. Sloan even said the next day that he was "disappointed" about the crowd’s behavior. "I still think that’s out of place for our league … but I can’t control that," he said. "I just have an opinion about it."
So do I. It has to stop.
Nobody died that night in ’07. But the Jazz players left the court for the last time that season amid a torrent of invectives, aimed at the referees, that obscured and soured everything the team had accomplished. Fans ignored the players and went after the refs in another episode that wrongly defined the nature of sports in this era.
Sadly, a Utahn had to die to illustrate the absence of human decency in these venues. So the next time — or maybe the next 10 or 20 times — you’re tempted to scream at a referee during your kid’s game or join in an arena-wide chant at a Jazz game, catch yourself.
No, fans did not directly cause the death of Ricardo Portillo. But our culture of hating the referee, of always having to blame somebody, certainly had something to do with it.
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