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In our opinion: No winners when violence and sports collide

Published: Tuesday, May 7 2013 1:23 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this Thursday, May 2, 2013 file photo, Jose Lopez points to an undated photo of Ricardo Portillo, center, his brother-in-law, following a news conference, at Intermountain Medical Center, in Murray, Utah. Portillo, a 46-year-old soccer referee who was punched by a teenage player during a game and later slipped into a coma died Saturday night, May 4, 2013, police said. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File) (Rick Bowmer, ASSOCIATED PRESS) FILE - In this Thursday, May 2, 2013 file photo, Jose Lopez points to an undated photo of Ricardo Portillo, center, his brother-in-law, following a news conference, at Intermountain Medical Center, in Murray, Utah. Portillo, a 46-year-old soccer referee who was punched by a teenage player during a game and later slipped into a coma died Saturday night, May 4, 2013, police said. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File) (Rick Bowmer, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

There are no winners in the tragic incident that took the life of a referee in a youth soccer game in Taylorsville — not the victim's family, who lost a husband, father and friend; not the 17-year-old whose punch allegedly resulted in the death; and, perhaps least of all but still important, not amateur sports and the notion of sportsmanship.

The death of 46-year-old Ricardo Portillo, who probably never saw the punch coming to the side of his head, was a rare occurrence. Unfortunately, violence against referees and among players — sometimes even involving parents and other adults — is not so rare.

Without an overarching respect for sportsmanship, competitive sports cannot exist. Among other things, sportsmanship is the basic agreement among all participants, coaches and spectators that an arbiter, or referee, has the final word on how rules will be applied to the game at hand. Without the unstated assumption that rules and fair play are more important than winning — even among those who disagree with the referee — games become meaningless.

The same applies to all aspects of life in civil society, where all pursuits must be sought within the confines of laws and basic respect for rights and dignities. The young assailant in this case may have lost control of his emotions for a brief and regrettable moment, but a culture that paid strict attention to sportsmanship in everything from games to business to what people feel is appropriate to upload on the Internet may have made such behavior so ghastly inappropriate it wouldn't have been considered.

Instead, we learn from Portillo's grief-stricken family that this was the third violent incident he had encountered as a referee, and that earlier incidents had resulted in broken ribs and a broken leg.

While, as we said, fatal attacks are rare, this is not the first such result. The nation was shocked nearly 12 years ago when Thomas Junta, the father of a youth hockey player in Massachusetts, attacked and killed volunteer hockey coach Michael Costin. They had disagreed over whether play on the team, on which both men's sons played, was too rough. Costin was refereeing a scrimmage at the time. Junta was released from prison in 2010.

Earlier reports in this newspaper cataloged numerous violent incidents at basketball, football and other amateur sporting events along the Wasatch Front. In one case frighteningly similar to the one that killed Portillo, football referee Jerry Powers was blind-sided by a punch to his left ear in 1994. He needed plastic surgery to fix the damage and was left with permanent partial hearing loss. In that case, however, it was the parent of a player who threw the punch.

Despite frequently heard metaphors, sports is not war. There is no such thing as justifiable rage on an athletic field. Perhaps nations cannot always walk away from diplomatic insults or unfair attacks, but athletes, their coaches and supporters can. Final scores may seem as important as life itself, but they fade quickly into the fast-flowing stream of daily life. Violence, however, carries with it a finality that alters a wide swath of life forever.

To all who were touched by this tragedy, that lesson is now crystal clear. Now it's up to all coaches, teachers, athletic leagues, parents and fans to change the culture so that incidents like this will be unthinkable in the future.

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