Ricardo Portillo's death calls for a campaign to respect referees

The death of referee Ricardo Portillo is a wake-up call. It’s time for a campaign to respect referees. Photo: Friends and family gather to remember referee Ricardo Portillo, who passed away after injuries he sustained after an assault by a soccer player at a soccer game he was refereeing on April 27. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON, May 6, 2013 — The tragic news that 46-year-old referee Ricardo Portillo had died a week after being punched by a teenage goalie should be a wake-up call to all those involved in soccer. It’s time for referee’s to be respected at all levels of the game by fans and players alike.

Referees are soccer’s unsung heros. Without referees, and referee’s assistants, there can be no soccer games. Soccer associations, from the professional leagues down to the youth leagues, need to clamp down on players who spew out foul language and abuse at referees. A cultural change is needed in the sport.

As Lao Tzu said: “Watch your words, as they become actions.”

Portillo died while at his job, punched by a 17-year-old for merely handing out a yellow card during a game at Eisenhower Junior High School in Taylorsville, near Salt Lake City. The youngster has been arrested by police and is being held at a juvenile detention facility.

According to his family, in his eight-years of refereeing, Portillo had often faced injuries and abuse. His family had begged him to stop officiating games because of the risk of unconscionable violence he faced from angry players. 

It’s OK to be upset with a call by a referee but the line must be drawn at personal attacks, especially from parents on the sidelines at youth games.

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“It’s not the ignorance of the child, it’s the poor manners of the parents,” said brother-in-law and a fellow soccer referee Pedro Lopez, according to the Associated Press. “The yells and insults from the sideline from the parents make kids more violent.”

FIFA soccer’s governing body has been trying to clean up the game through education programs. We have seen players and fans sanctioned and punished for using racist and and other vulgar language. Surely now is the time for FIFA and league’s around the world to start a campaign to promote respect for referees.

It will be an uphill climb. An article written on these pages: “MLS needs to clampdown on the F-word chanting at referees” was met with misunderstanding and derision.

On a personal note, below is an article that this soccer columnist wrote 13 years ago, when he decided to give up refereeing after facing abuse from parents and coaches.

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“Referees are soccer’s unsung heroes.” : This column is dedicated to the unsung heroes and the front-line soldiers in soccer today — the referees. I can honestly say to them, “I feel your pain.”

After years of playing and writing about the sport, I decided to test my mettle as a referee this year. I paid my $25, did my 18 hours of classes and even drove 70 miles one night to catch a class I had missed.

Most of my colleagues in the course were high school students as young as 14. I was told that many of these budding refs would quit the job after their first few games because of the verbal abuse they would face. It was hard to believe. My classmates, glowing with enthusiasm, didn’t look like quitters.

I passed the exam and paid another $25 for insurance and my badge. After spending $80 on a uniform, I was ready. Then came the games.

First I officiated under-12 boys and under-14 girls in recreation leagues. So far, so good. I enjoyed myself, and parents and coaches even thanked me. It was a good workout, and I got to see a side of the sport I never had before. I got a couple of checks in the mail. Refs, on average, earn between $18 and $35 officiating youth games. It`s not much, but it helps pay for gas.

However the hard part — refereeing travel teams — was next. Travel teams are elite youth teams that play in the top leagues in the area and often drive far and wide. The clubs are very organized, and many of the coaches are paid. Parents invest a minimum of between $1,000 and $2,000 a year so their children can play on these teams.

Travel teams take their soccer seriously — too seriously, in some cases. Parents with visions of college scholarship dollars crowd the sidelines instead of letting their kids have fun. As I worked the travel games, I began to notice the comments coming from the sidelines. Most teams seemed to have at least one loud-mouthed parent who probably never kicked a ball in his or her life, but had suddenly become an expert on soccer now that their 14-year-old played select-team games.

Suddenly, the job wasn’t as enjoyable as it was before. We were told in the referee classes that the best refs are deaf, but my hearing is pretty acute and the comments began to get to me. “What rules are you playing by ref!” shouted one coach. “You people are a bunch of losers!” shouted another. One coach even ran onto the field with a rule book at halftime and approached a referee I was assisting. I made a bad call as an assistant in one game and the hundred or so parents who had probably never kicked a soccer balls in their life started riling me. I felt like doing my best Vinnie Jones impersonation, but I let it go.

One man started lecturing me on the offside rule and I nearly told him to get back to the golf course.

And then came that dreaded Sunday. I got out of bed early to referee an under-15 girls travel game, and it was like Chinese water torture. The losing coach, a April Heinrichs wannbee, harassed me with snide comments. All I wanted to do was referee the game, not get a Marine Corps boot camp experience. My confidence was shot, and I couldn’t wait for the game to end.

“I don’t need this,” I thought as I blew the final whistle. “I have enough stress with my job and raising four kids.”

Then the offending coach ran up to me and yelled, “I’m going to report you.” She demanded my name as if I had committed some terrible crime or run over her poodle. I thought it was over, but no. Then a parent rushed up and gave me a mouthful, telling me to go to, well, let’s just say a very hot place.

At that moment, I’d had enough. I felt as if the wind was punched out of me and, for one brief moment, I started to hate soccer. I couldn’t believe how rotten I felt — and I still had two more games to go that day.

And then it hit me: I’d become a refereeing casualty, like hundreds of others who quit because they are sick of the abuse. A friend told me he gave up refereeing after parents chased him to his car. Another friend`s 15-year-old-son quit after being intimidated by yelling adults.

Will I ref again? I’m not sure. It seems a waste not to use those two new shirts I bought for the fall season. So to all you coaches, parents and managers who will crowd the touch lines in the upcoming season: Please don’t take the refs for granted. Refereeing is not as easy as it looks. Yes, we sometimes miss calls, but without us anarchy would reign. Have a heart for the guys in the middle of the field.

Just watch the game and if possible, make only positive comments. Let the kids have fun; after all it`s only a game and we’ve all got to get up and go to work in the morning.

John Haydon wrote a weekly soccer column for The Washington Times for 20 years. He has covered two World Cups and written about Major League Soccer from the league’s inception in 1996.

Follow John on Twitter at @Johnahaydon or email jhaydon@washingtontimes.com

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John Haydon

John Haydon has covered soccer for The Washington Times for two decades. He has reported on international soccer events in Germany, South Korea and Spain. John hails from Birmingham, England and has lived in the Washington D.C. region for over twenty years.  

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