A Call for Sanity
Referee’s Death a Nadir in Sportsmanship
FILE - In this May 5, 2013, file photo, Johana Portillo-Lopez, daughter of Ricardo Portillo speaks about her father's death during a news conference in Salt Lake City. A Utah prosecutor said Monday, May 6, he plans to decide soon what charges to file against a teenager accused of punching Portillo, a soccer referee who later died after slipping into a weeklong coma. (AP Photo/The Salt Lake Tribune, Kim Raff, File)
The football teams were still on the field, exchanging the traditional postgame handshakes, when Pete McCabe walked by. The veteran referee heard another official call his name and turned, only to be smashed in the face with a helmet by one of the players.
Almost every bone in McCabe’s face was broken, his skull fractured in several places and his nose nowhere close to where it belonged. As he lay on the ground in Rochester, N.Y., the semipro player who assaulted him stood over him yelling, “Take that. Take that. This is what I’m all about.”
“I have said since this happened to me that it’s going to happen again,” McCabe said, “and someone is going to get killed.”
Four years later, someone was.
McCabe was sickened when he heard the news that Ricardo Portillo had died Saturday, a week after the youth soccer referee in Utah had been punched in the head by a 17-year-old player angry over a yellow card. Just as Portillo’s family is now pleading for athletes to control their tempers, McCabe has spent the last four years preaching the importance of sportsmanship in and around Rochester.
To limited success.
“There’s no respect for officials now,” McCabe said Monday. “Go look at any game, and they’re yelling at the official. Pick a high school event, and go watch a couple of games. I guarantee you, you’ll see a coach get out of control on the sideline. Or a parent. Or a kid. It’s so rampant.
“What happened in Utah, I knew it was going to happen. It was just a matter of time,” he added. “Whether it was New York state, Massachusetts, Florida, it was going to happen somewhere in this country.”
But the problem isn’t limited to this country.
Several Dutch teens are awaiting trial in the beating death late last year of a volunteer linesman who was working his son’s youth soccer game. In Brazil last month, a referee was kicked in the chest after the final whistle of a third-division match of the Sao Paulo state championship. A referee in Kenya has filed a lawsuit against the national soccer federation, contending he is impotent after a coach grabbed his testicles in protest over a call. A Spanish soccer player was banned for three months last year after throwing a plastic water bottle at a referee. Also last year, a soccer player in New Zealand was banned indefinitely after he punched a referee and broke his jaw.
And at hockey’s Under-18 World Championships in Estonia last month, a Lithuanian player hurled his stick at a referee, hitting him in the upper body.
“Part of this isn’t a sport problem, part of it is a societal problem,” said Dan Gould, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State. “You watch TV, and the trash talking that’s accepted. If you’re famous, you’re almost supposed to get into trouble. Why is everyone infatuated with Lindsay Lohan when she seems like a spoiled brat?”
Added Barry Mano, the founder and president of the National Association of Sports Officials, “We’ve become so loud and so brash. It’s about me and about being in the spotlight. All of those things play out in the games we play.”
Part of the beauty of sports — and youth sports in particular — has always been its power to educate and transform. To instill in athletes skills and values they can use for the rest of their lives, in arenas that don’t have hardwood floors or boundaries outlined in chalk. Talk to any CEO or other successful person, and odds are he or she can trace the lessons they learned about teamwork, fair play, leadership and overcoming challenges back to Little League, Pee-Wee football or some other youth sport.
But just like passing, dribbling and hitting, those skills don’t come with the uniform and the practice schedule. They have to be taught and reinforced by league administrators, coaches and, of course, the parents who signed their kids up for a team in the first place.
“Most Americans really want their kids to learn values through sports. And research has found we can teach kids to be good sports and enhance their moral development through sports if it’s done correctly,” Gould said. “But the big myth is it just happens.”
Even referees and officials can do a better job, Mano said.
Watch any college basketball game, and odds are you’ll see a coach not only stalking the sideline, but coming onto the floor to protest a call. That’s a violation, Mano said, yet it’s almost never called.
“We’ve softened too much by letting bad behavior go escaped,” he said.
It may not seem like much. But add up all the little transgressions that have been overlooked or excused, and sports now has a big problem.
“I really believe in the power of sport for changing people,” Gould said. “But it’s not going to happen if we just hope it happens. We need to train coaches, and the leagues need to be organized and have pretty defined rules of what’s tolerable and what’s not tolerable.
“You also need to recognize good sporting behavior,” he added. “It’s not just about fixing the problem.”
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has developed a “True Sport” campaign to help parents, coaches and administrators return the emphasis in sports to the life lessons that don’t show up in the won-loss column. The program includes educational materials, codes of conduct and good behavior pledges, and the approach is individually tailored for athletes in elementary school, middle school and high school. In the Netherlands, the Dutch FA responded to Richard Nieuwenhuizen’s death with a “Respect” campaign targeted at players of all levels.
And at i9 Sports, sportsmanship is valued so highly there are weekly rewards for it.
The recreational youth league, which has programs in 280 communities in 28 states, designates a specific value of sportsmanship — being a good buddy, humility, leadership — for coaches to emphasize each week. At the end of the week, the player on each team who best exemplified that value gets recognized.
Parents also have to pledge to display good sportsmanship, and not use negative or derogatory language with officials, coaches, other parents or kids. They also pledge to keep fun as the main emphasis of the league.
Four years after he was assaulted, McCabe still gets migraine-like headaches every day, has limited hearing in his left ear and has lost his sense of taste and smell. Yet he continues to referee — “I just love doing it so much” — hoping he can instill lessons of sportsmanship with the coaches and players he encounters.
But he wonders if it has any impact. Though his assault was big news in Rochester when it happened and again when his attacker was sentenced to 10 years in prison, McCabe sees the same poisonous behavior everywhere he goes.
At a state championship football game he worked recently, one of the coaches complained constantly and threw his clipboard. At a boys lacrosse game, McCabe heard a coach tell one of his players to “bury” an opponent.
“Every time I try to talk to somebody I hit a brick wall,” McCabe said.
“Unless something’s done in this country, it’s going to happen again,” he said. “Until we teach kids how to play and respect officials, it’s going to happen again.”