Youth Sports Violence


What youth sports should be: sheer joy

I woke up this morning to my usual routine:  coffee and the sports page. Both are necessary for me to get up and going in the morning.   Sport, I think many readers would agree, is usually a source of joy, and so it was with equal measures of sadness and shock that I read about the death yesterday of a soccer referee, Ricardo Portillo.

It’s a heartbreaking story, with a 46-year-old gone, a family fatherless, and a 17-year-old who will soon be tried for murder,  whose life will never be the same and whose own family has been irrevocably changed.

All because of one moment of violence.

Mr. Portillo was working in La Liga Continental de Futbol, a youth soccer organization in Salt Lake City, Utah. Apparently he saw the young man commit a shoving foul after a corner kick; when he cautioned the player and gave him a yellow card, the young man punched the unsuspecting Mr. Portillo in the face.   He immediately fell to the ground and was transported to hospital, where he spent a week in a coma prior to passing away.  The details, including clinical descriptions of the victim after the assault, can be found here.

The article gave me pause and got me to thinking specifically about the incidence of such events in youth sports, which I will discuss subsequently.   The specific issue at hand–how often do referees get assaulted on a playing field–was addressed in the NY Times article: “Reliable data on referee assaults at all levels of all sports does (sic not exist, but there have been several violent events worldwide in recent months (my itals),” and the article goes on to enumerate several of these involving referees.  In truth, however, there seem to be no epidemiological data addressing this issue that the reporter could find.

But for one moment, what of the general issue of violence in sports?


Zinedine Zidane in repose

The litany of violent sports incidents that I could quickly come up with in my own head while I drank my morning coffee was, unfortunately, a fairly long one.  There was the recent high profile incident in Major League Baseball of Carlos Quentin breaking Zach Greinke’s collarbone after the latter had hit him with a pitch. Zinedine Zidane, one of my favorite footballers of all time, probably cost France a World Cup because of a head butt.

There is the famous story of player-on-coach violence, where Latrell Sprewell put a neck hold on P.J. Carlesimo.  Coaches, of course, have returned the favor, with some notorious examples including Woody Hayes and Bobby Knight.   There are, in fact, examples of sport violence involving just about every combination of actor one can think of:  fan-on-fan (S.F. Giants fan beaten by L.A. Dodgers fan); player(s) on fan(s) (group melee led by Ron Artest of the NBA); and fans-on-fans-and-players-and-coaches (Egyptian soccer riot 2012).

And as I sat and thought about Mr. Portillo, a father dying in the setting of youth sport, I recalled the especially poignant and sobering story of sport parent assaulting sport parent in youth hockey, resulting in the death of one father and a life-forever-changed of the other.

This all makes sense, I suppose.  I think it is generally understood that sports is something of a mirror of the larger society, and there is little doubt that violence is rife in the world at large. I  think, however, hope springs eternal when it comes to our youth.  Are there ways our children can grow up in sport, playing with passion but without violence?  How bad, after all, is the problem of violence in youth sport?  Has the scene become as bad as that depicted in a recent episode of Bryant Gumbel’s Real Sports?


Mike Matheny, Major League Baseball Player

To begin to answer the first question, I would direct our readers to one site I have grown particularly fond of.  The site is run by Mike Matheny, a former catcher for the SF Giants (among other teams) and, in college, the University of Michigan, and who is from Reynoldsburg, Ohio, a town not too far from where I am sitting right now writing this blog.  I should add, he is also the current manager of the St. Louis Cardinals.  What I really admire about the man, however, is his website’s stated goal: “Mike aspires to change the culture of youth sports to provide the greatest impact to kids, their character, and their communities.”  This statement is a concise summation of a longer document he wrote a few years back known as the “Matheny Manifesto.”

The Matheny Manifesto is a fantastic letter Matheny himself wrote to a group of parents as he embarked on coaching their sons in Little League Baseball.  Anyone involved in youth sport ought to read it.  The letter emphasizes the importance of teamwork, sportsmanship, citizenship, and fun that should be the hallmarks of youth sport; and the manifesto notes in no uncertain terms the powerful role model the parents can provide (or not) for their children so that they will embrace these qualities.

I suspect that if all adults involved in youth sport could comport themselves along the guidelines of the Matheny Manifesto, the health of the overall sporting culture would improve. Specifically, I think youth sports violent incidents would decline.   At least, that would be my research hypothesis.

And so, finally, what hard evidence is there regarding tragic incidents like the one that befell Mr. Portillo?   According to the National Association of Sporting Officials quoted in the NY Times article on this referee’s death, Mr. Potrillo is only the second official in the United States known to have died as a result of referee assault, though “….the organization’s president said that many serious assaults went unreported….(and) said treatment of officials had deteriorated drastically since he began the organization in 1980.”

There is not much epidemiological data on referee assault or on any other dimension of this issue of violence in youth sport.  One article I did come across, “Violence in youth sports:  hazing, brawling and foul play,” was authored by friends of mine, Dr. Dawn Comstock and Christy Collins, and can be found in a 2010 edition of the British Journal of Sports Medicine.  Dr. Comstock is a prolific writer whose large epidemiological ‘footprint’ can be found throughout the sports medicine literature, including this blog’s mother journal, the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine.  In fact, Dr. Comstock’s group, including Christy Collins, authored a study in the May 2013 CJSM I plan on blogging about this weekend.

The 2010 BJSM article is a review looking at a variety of different types of youth sport-related violence and begins to explore some of the areas of potential research.  The paper notes the need for an incident tracking method, as epidemiologic theory maintains that until we can know the scope of the problem, we can do little to work on the problem.  It states, “Monitoring the magnitude and distribution of the burden of sports-related violence and building the scientific infrastructure necessary to support the development and widespread application of effective sports-related prevention interventions are essential first steps toward a reduction in the incidence of sports-related violence.”

What do you, the reader, think about this?  Have you anecdotes or examples of sports-related violence to share?  Do you have strategies you can share that might address violence abatement in sports?  Are you aware of any registries that track these sorts of injuries/incidents?  Please share your thoughts, and, as ever, thanks for reading and…..pass this blog post on!

About sportingjim
I work at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio USA, where I am a specialist in pediatric sports medicine. My academic appointment as an Associate Professor of Pediatrics is through Ohio State University. I am a public health advocate for kids' health and safety. I am also the Deputy Editor for the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine.

2 Responses to Youth Sports Violence

  1. Hamish Kerr says:

    I’m not sure epidemiology is necessary, Jim. One death is quite enough. Unfortunately soccer is tainted at many levels by a lack of respect for the official in charge. In comparison, in rugby there is absolute authority for the officials and disrespect is just not tolerated. I have played soccer now for over 30 years, and there is a delicate balance between aggression (inflicting harm on others) and assertiveness that is inherent to the game. I have witnessed aggression many, many times and have been kicked, punched and all sorts personally and this may or may not be reprimanded by referees. I’m okay with that, the majority play the game fairly. What I have seen in recent times is escalated aggression towards officials. Seldom a week passes without a referee being threatened in my men’s open indoor league. Why do people think it acceptable to take out their frustrations on an official who is helping create a platform for them to enjoy the beautiful game? I have had words with many a referee, but threatening violence (no matter enacting violence) is abhorent. The 17 year old in Utah will be made example of, I’m sure. But our society, whether specifically the US soccer community, or the greater population needs to start to take responsibility for it’s actions and role model respect for officials as a priority.
    My deepest respects to the family of Mr Portillo.
    Hamish Kerr MD

    • sportingjim says:


      Thanks so much for writing, I greatly enjoyed your thoughts. I found
      them thought provoking.

      Perhaps I might clarify my call for ‘epidemiologic data.’ Let me start
      by echoing your sentiment: indeed, one death is enough. I think your
      commentary on the distinction between respect for the ref in two different
      sports is interesting, and quite possibly true. But that is precisely
      why recording these types of incidents and injuries is necessary. Are there
      some sports where this sort of violence is seen at greater levels? You mention
      soccer (football) as having a culture of disrespect for the ref. I think historically
      the same may be said of baseball and its treatment of umpires. But are
      these anecdotes the same as having hard data? Or are these just opinions you and
      I hold, and possibly, in fact, the violence of which I write (including
      all ‘targets,’ refs, players, coaches, etc.) is the same or greater in a sport
      like, say, rugby?

      The NY Times article mentions ‘only’ two deaths to refs, and as you
      mentioned that is two too many. But how many ‘near misses’ are there?
      How big is this problem? Once we can begin to understand the scope of the
      problem, and what sports may or may not have higher rates of this problem, I think
      we can perhaps put in place risk abatement initiatives to prevent truly
      catastrophic events.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Keep them coming.


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