Ricardo Portillo was a 46-year-old father of three daughters and active member of his community. He loved refereeing local high school soccer games. That’s what he was doing last weekend at Eisenhower Junior High School in Taylorsville, Utah.
It was just another mid-morning game until Portillo issued a yellow-card against a 17-year-old goalie after he pushed another player. A yellow card is given as a warning to a player for an extreme violation of the rules. The teen then approached the referee and began yelling at him. At some point during the altercation the teen punched the referee in the face. Aside from being slightly disoriented by the punch, the referee appeared to be okay, but he wasn’t.
Soon after the punch, Portillo began to complain about nausea. He was helped off the field where he began vomiting blood. A friend called the paramedics, by the time they arrived his condition had worsened even though he remained conscious. Medics found him in the fetal position and the teenager responsible for punching the referee had disappeared. Portillo was taken to the hospital where he slipped into a coma. Doctor’s at Intermountain Medical Center informed his family that his coma was the result of swelling of the brain. He had been listed in critical condition until May 4, when he passed away due injuries he sustained.
The high school junior was brought down to the police station by his father where he is now being held on charges of aggravated assault. Aside from this story being incredibly tragic, perhaps the most surprising part of it is in the details released by the family. His daughter Johana Portillo, 26, told the media that this wasn’t the first time her father had been attacked. She said that the family had tried to get him to stop because they feared for his safety during games.
This story reminds us of the violence that often takes place on the sports field. Each time we acknowledge that it is senseless, that it must be stopped, and that more parental responsibility is required. All of those things are true. It goes beyond a lack of sportsmanship though. The pressure placed on young athletes in high school can sometimes go too far. I don’t think it goes beyond the realm of feasible to say to that this teen lost sight of the fact that it was only a game. Ricardo was the father of three daughters, he loved the sport and loved refereeing. There’s no reason why Portillo or anyone in sports should have to fear for their lives.
The pressure adolescents feel while pursuing sports has been studied at length. There is more demand to perform in and out of school. You have to be a great athlete and you have to be a great student if you want to attract the attention of colleges. Burnout isn’t just a thing that happens to adults, it is increasingly occurring in student athletes. These athletes regularly suffer from fatigue as they try to balance school work and workouts. Student athletes obtain injuries at a similar rate to professional ones, the difference is the pressure they face to continue to play through their injuries.
That pressure doesn’t translate into success in college either. Only 5% of high school athletes will go on to play their sport in college. Am I suggesting that everyone is to blame for the death of Ricardo Portillo? No. What I am suggesting is a healthy and long overdue dose of perspective when it comes to high school sports and student athletes. This was only a game and the Portillo family shouldn't be without a father just for making a call that a player disagreed with.