Soccer ref's death shines light on violence faced by sports officials

The death of a Utah soccer referee who was punched by a 17-year-old player puts focus on what amateur sports groups say is a growing problem: teens and parents losing control – and in many cases physically assaulting sports officials – when they think bad calls have been made.

Police have accused the teenage player in a recreational soccer league of punching 46-year-old referee Ricardo Portillo on April 27 after he called a foul on him and issued him a yellow card. Portillo began vomiting blood and was rushed to a hospital, where he slipped into a coma and died on Saturday.


The teenager was playing goalie during a game at Eisenhower Junior High School in Taylorsville when Portillo issued him a yellow card for pushing an opposing forward trying to score. In soccer, a yellow card is given as a warning to a player for an egregious violation of the rules. Two yellow cards lead to a red card and expulsion from the game.

While the death of a referee is a rarity in the U.S., groups, like the National Association of Sports Officials, say there is a growing trend of physical assaults on game officials in recreational sports that is very troubling.

“It's been a serious concern of ours ever since this association started,” Barry Mano, president of the group, told

While verbal assaults have always been common, “We have seen the frequency of violence go up at the recreational level,” Mano said, noting that violence – like in the Portillo case – rarely occurs on the high school, college and professional level.

“Referees have been bumped, pushed, knocked down, sent to the hospital, hit with chairs,” he said of violence at recreational games. “We’ve had a number of incidents where officials are leaving a tough contest and they’re accosted in the parking lot. You don’t get to smack somebody because you felt you were wronged.”

Portillo, for instance, had been attacked by players twice before in his eight years refereeing soccer matches – even having his ribs and legs broken – his daughter, Johana Portillo, told The Associated Press.

The number of arrests at recreational sports games have increased significantly over the years. A 43-year-old referee was seriously injured after he was punched in the back of the head by two angry soccer players after making a call during a game in Clearwater, Fla., in July of last year. In another Florida game, 41-year-old referee Jayme Ream was reportedly attacked in 2011 by coaches and players from the Sarasota Gators football team – a felony in Florida. The brawl, which was caught on video, occurred after a disputed call in the game among the two junior teams, ages 13 and 14, the Herald Tribune reported at the time of the incident.

There is only one other known case of a referee death in the U.S., according to Mano. Gregory Vaughn, a 33-year-old high school basketball coach and volunteer referee, was shot and killed in Queens, N.Y., on July 30, 1988, after he made a call someone disagreed with.

“Security is an absolute issue,” Mano told “People need to invest money in having more security on site so that it removes that responsibility from the sports officials.”  

The suspect in Portillo’s death, whose name is withheld because he's a minor, has been booked into juvenile detention on suspicion of aggravated assault. Authorities will consider additional charges since Portillo has died. An autopsy is planned. No cause of death was released.’s Cristina Corbin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.