He may have refereed soccer, but he was one of us; one of the fraternity of men and women who shouldered the task of enforcing the rules of the game we love, whatever that game may be. Ricardo Portillo died Saturday from a brain injury sustained after being punched by a teenaged goalkeeper after Ricardo showed him a yellow card. According to Ricardo’s daughter, she and her siblings begged him to stop officiating because she feared this type of violence; but he refused. He couldn’t give up what he loved to do.
If you’re like me, you can’t imagine a life without officiating. Its more than a job, more than a hobby, more than a passion – its who you are; its why you get out of bed in the morning, and you’re never happier than when you’re refereeing a game. The boos, the criticism, the thrown drinks, the screaming; you’re willing to endure all of it to do what you love. And you can’t explain why, but you wouldn’t trade it for anything. We sign the contract and promise to do our very best every day to enforce the rules of the game fairly and safely. If you’re an official, you take that oath seriously; you accept the responsibilities and authorities that come with it and your integrity means everything. Every official has a catalogue of stories about times when they were abused verbally or even physically; we swap stories and laugh at the absurdity of what some people will do over a call that we’ve made. But one story like Ricardo’s, or Dutch Assistant Referee Richard Nieuwenhuizen’s (d. 12 December, 2012), immediately stops the laughter – it happened to him, and it could happen to any one of us. But I would never allow that to force me to quit officiating. It has been the centre of my life when I had nothing else, and I could never turn my back on that; and neither could Ricardo or Richard.
The default reaction of nearly every player, coach, or fan who believes that they’ve been the victim of a poor call is to scream, and shout, and jump up and down. And if you happen to be on the ice, or the field, or the court, you get right in that official’s face and you tell them what a terrible call they just made. That is the default response. The minimum. So what is a step up from that? Throwing things? I’ve had water bottles, half a clipboard, and a garbage can thrown at me. I’ve been spat on. It’s not a stretch to imagine physical violence occurring in any one of those situations.
This is not confined to soccer, nor is it confined to youth sports. No matter what sports this young goalkeeper has watched growing up, he’s seen examples of this behaviour in every single game. In the NHL, NFL, MLB, NBA, MLS, EPL, you name it; it happens every day. From coaches and players, and always from fans; in this young man’s mind, it is completely reasonable for him to scream in the referee’s face if he feels the referee has made a poor call. So when he loses his temper, he takes the next step; and in this case, the next step cost Ricardo his life.
As a referee, I’ve seen hundreds of coaches, and I’ve also had eight different [head] coaches in my playing career. One of my Atom coaches was a perfect example of this supposedly acceptable behaviour; he would lean over the boards and scream at twelve to fifteen year-old officials if he thought they had made a mistake. Once, he confronted the teenage referee in a rage after a game because the third period was shortened to twelve minutes instead of fifteen due to time constraints. On the other hand, one coach that I continue to hold in the highest esteem was the coach of my Midget A2 team, Tim Roux. I played for Tim for a season and only once did he lose his temper with the referee. How did I know Tim had lost his temper? He shouted “come on!” at the referee. He hadn’t said a word up to that point, and he didn’t say another word for the rest of the game. That was Tim losing his temper. Tim is the gold standard of how all players, coaches, parents, and fans should behave.
Sports are emotional; we invest in them as players and coaches and fans, we all lose our temper at one time or another. We can’t control how we feel, but we can control how we respond; our actions define us. If the default response to a poor call is a quiet, respectful word with the referee, in which opinions are exchanged, then the occasional loss of one’s temper will involve shouting and intimidation. That’s acceptable. But as long as the default response is shouting and intimidation, losing one’s temper could cost an official his life. That is not acceptable. We as a sports society need to change how we allow ourselves to react during games. Players, if you see a teammate losing his temper with the referee, step in and calm them down. Coaches, if you see one of your players losing his temper with the referee, make it known that that sort of behaviour won’t be tolerated on your team. Managers and association executives, if you see a coach losing his temper with the referee, make it known that that sort of behaviour won’t be tolerated within your organization. Parents, if you see your children losing their temper with the referee, step in and remind them that this is not acceptable behaviour. It is not acceptable behaviour.
Each one of us plays a part in shaping our sports culture no matter what we do; so let’s go forward shaping it for the better. And do it because Ricardo Portillo, 46 years old, from Salt Lake City, died on 4 May 2012, doing what he loved.