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(Kim Raff | The Salt Lake Tribune) Friends and family of soccer referee Ricardo Portillo hold signs and candles during a news conference Sunday in Salt Lake City. Portillo died Saturday of injuries he sustained when police say a player punched him in the head during a game.
Monson: Soccer referee’s family wants us to learn — and live
First Published May 06 2013 12:29 pm • Last Updated Dec 07 2013 11:31 pm

Most of us never knew Ricardo Portillo. From what I’ve read about him, he seemed like a terrific human being. The sad emphasis there on the past tense. And that past tense carries with it an important lesson.

He was the father of three daughters, a sportsman, a lover of the beautiful game, a volunteer soccer referee. And when he issued a yellow card on a 17-year-old goalkeeper during a game last week in Taylorsville and wrote the infraction in his notebook, it was the last thing he ever consciously did.

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A punch came from the blind side, allegedly thrown by the angry goalkeeper, dropping the 46-year-old Portillo and putting him on life support at a nearby hospital. He died Saturday night.

Now, his family and friends mourn him.

And the teenager faces serious legal charges.

The reaction here: What … the … hell?

A good man’s life is taken from him and every blessed soul who knew and loved him because somebody didn’t like a call he made in a rec league game? Somebody lost control and fired a powerful fist after that call didn’t go his way? And now the course of that kid’s life is messed over, too?

It sounds ridiculous, only because it is.

There’s no telling what the young assailant’s intentions were. They were bad, but were they lethal? Somewhere separate from the mourning, somebody’s going to have to sort that out.

In that awful mix, though, is the lesson. A lesson Portillo’s family desperately wants to be learned — by all those involved in recreational sports, and sports of all kinds.

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"This has to be serious," Portillo’s daughter, Johana Portillo-Lopez told The Salt Lake Tribune. "They have to do something about it. We always have to wait until something happens, some tragedy, so they do something about it. But it happened to us, it happened to my dad. I just don’t want other families to suffer as we have been suffering."

The "they" of which Portillo-Lopez spoke, in the smaller sense, refers to league officials. In the greater sense, that "they" is all of us.

It includes players, coaches, parents, officials and spectators — anyone who has any connection to or presence at sports events of every kind, big or small. It applies to junior leagues, adult leagues, school sports, church sports, professional leagues, all around. We all need to check ourselves, and realize that these sports are not life and death. They shouldn’t be. They cannot be.

If that threshold gets crossed, then … well, ask the broken-hearted Portillo family. Ask the teenaged goalkeeper who lost control, who took a life and broke those hearts — at a soccer game.

Sports are about competition, which stirs emotion. But if that emotion rages and competition turns into cruelty, eclipsing victory and begetting violence, then the bitter-cold wind needs to turn our heads around and point us in a different direction.

I’ve seen the teetering of that emotion at too many events through the years. I attended a high school girls’ softball game where fans, angered by an umpire’s calls, started yelling brutal threats at the ump and climbing the backstop. I’ve seen parents of kids participating in junior leagues face off in the parking lot, dissatisfied by what happened on the field, aiming blows at one another. Remember the mothers of boys on opposing youth baseball teams getting in a fight in Taylorsville a few years ago? One of the moms was knocked unconscious by the other. Almost any veteran referee of almost any sport can tell harrowing stories about being chased down and threatened — or much worse — by enraged participants or their friends or family members after games.

Lastly, whenever I hear about tragedies like the one that robbed us of Ricardo Portillo, I think of the fathers of boys on a youth hockey league team in Massachusetts who got in a fight after a practice. One of those fathers brought misery to his own life when he punched the other father to death. Two sons suffered, then. At the victim’s wake, his young son, who was on the ice at that practice, was so heartsick and anguished, he climbed into his father’s casket, where he curled up and bawled.

Can we all stop it now?

Participants, players, parents, people?

Can we think about Mr. Portillo and that goalkeeper and remember what’s at stake when anger in sports boils over?

Can we stop the anger before it ever escalates, before it transforms into thrown fists with bad intentions — and sometimes tragic, deadly consequences?

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