On May 5, Ricardo Portilla died in a coma 10 days after being punched for giving a yellow card in a recreational league soccer game. This was not the first time that he had been attacked, and his family had begged him to give up officiating for fear that he would sustain a serious injury. The incident occurred not in a tournament or state championship but in a recreational league game! The league's "no tolerance policy" for player violence didn't deter the angry outburst.
The abuse of referees is rampant throughout sports at all ages and competitive levels. It starts with the coaches and fans. Eventually the children follow. Insults, intimidation, and occasional threats are the rule. We generally look the other way until the abuse becomes physical. Six weeks earlier, CNN broke a story about soccer referees in Europe being "under siege." That story featured an incident in the Netherlands in which a group of adolescent players beat a volunteer linesman to death.
Let's hope that the youth sports community in the United States will respond to Ricardo Portilla's death with the moral outrage expressed throughout Europe. The problem of referee abuse lies with an adult-constructed youth sports environment in which respect for rules, referees, and fairness seems quaint. Getting away with as much as possible and manipulating referees is the now the norm. Ricardo Portilla refereed recreational soccer because he loved the game and those who played it. We owe it to him and to our children to change the toxic culture that foments violence and disrespect.