A Fatal Case of Unsportsmanlike Conduct

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We seem to be losing sight of the values and discipline of ‘good sportsmanship’ as we become ever more tolerant of unruly and even violent behavior from our athletes, officials and fans.

Many are already familiar with the tragic news story about a soccer referee in Utah, Ricardo Portillo, who was punched in the face by a disgruntled player and subsequently died from the injuries he sustained. Several articles have been written about the event over the past few days, and although the entire coverage of the tragedy has piqued my interest, some of the articles have particularly garnered my attention because of their surprising and somewhat puzzling focus.

To date, I’ve read over two dozen news pieces on Mr Portillo’s untimely death. And perhaps the most unnerving thing for me personally about the overall character of many of these articles is the apparent lack of outrage or even ‘newsworthiness’ expressed in them about the assaulting player’s conduct in comparison to other aspects of the tragedy. One article, posted online by CBS news correspondent Ryan Jaslow, focuses almost exclusively on what most people don’t realize about the potential dangers associated with any kind of head trauma. The article points out that after he was punched, Portillo actually “seemed fine” and only later complained of dizziness and nausea, and became unsteady on his feet. The article also emphasizes that there were no obvious physical signs of injury, and that Portillo remained conscious even as he was being taken to the hospital for examination. Jaslow conjectured that Portillo was probably struck at just the right angle and with just enough force that his brain, and possibly even his brain stem, experienced swelling that couldn’t be contained. And with such swelling, a host of serious problems can develop, ranging from seizures, paralysis, coma, and even death. So, the important message to be learned, at least according to this story, is not that we live in an age of out-of-control athletes who all too frequently do the kinds of things that would have been unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago, but rather, that we all need to be much more aware of the unexpected medical complications that can develop when an argument escalates into fisticuffs and someone appears to suffer what seems to be a relatively innocuous blow to the head.

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Portillo certainly isn’t the first sports official to be attacked by a player and, to their credit, the authors of a few of the articles about the Portillo tragedy actually do mention the apparent rising tide of violence against referees and umpires in general. And such violence is perpetrated not only by players, but also by onlookers and even parents upset by an official’s call. The fact that such violence has become so common is tragic enough. But even more tragic in the Portillo case is the fact that he had actually been victimized several times before this fatal encounter with a 17-year-old, unhappy over being given a yellow card. Portillo’s daughter reported that, 5 years earlier, his ribs were broken in an incident during a game he was officiating and, a few years before that, an out-of-control player broke his leg. She also expressed sorrow over the fact that her father was not the only official in their league who’d been assaulted or injured. The game had become so tarnished with abuse toward officials, she lamented, that she felt the risk to her father was too great for him to continue officiating, and both she and her sister urged him to quit refereeing games. Still, Portillo’s love of the game simply wouldn’t let him do so.

It seems to me that an unfortunate and definitely unhealthy degree of tolerance has developed for the aggressive behavior of athletes and even fans at sports events. True, by nature, competitive sport is a rough and tumble enterprise. But also, by design, sports have traditionally been seen as an opportunity for players to express their aggressive instincts and energies in a disciplined manner, producing the character-building side benefits of perseverance, teamwork, skills-building, and a host of other values collectively referred to as ‘sportsmanship.’ And not only were raucous rule-breakers firmly and sternly penalized, but they also faced the rebuke and disfavor of the public, who looked to them as role models. I think the kind of tolerance for unruly behavior that has become terrifyingly commonplace in sports had its ultimate expression in the statements of Oscar Pistorius’s father, who casually attributed his son’s ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ mentality (that resulted in the killing of his sometime girlfriend) to “a sportsman’s instinct” (see my article on this: “A “Sportsman’s Instinct””). And one wonders, therefore, if we all should simply expect our field warriors, in the heat of battle, to strike out at perceived injustice. Or perhaps we should just expect them to get carried away from time to time, from all the adrenaline flowing through their veins. Perhaps we should equally expect such behavior from energized fans, parents, and other onlookers. Perhaps it’s simply unreasonable to expect that someone fighting so hard for victory at all costs on the field of play should be able to impose self-restraint. Are we simply expecting too much? Is it those of us who expect self-control and discipline who are actually being unreasonable? Should these things simply be expected to happen from time to time?

The well-intentioned but misguided among us have fashioned ‘no tolerance’ rules for all sorts of venues and circumstances, often leading to ridiculous results. We’ve even suspended from school a 5-year-old child who planted an unrequested kiss on someone for whom they felt affection. But somehow, no one — not players, coaches, fans, or even commentators — seems similarly outraged over the epidemic of unruly conduct by players and fans that all too frequently occurs during sporting events. Perhaps the tolerance is partly a result of the presence of a high proportion of the personalities I refer to in my book Character Disturbance as “aggressive personalities” (see also my series of articles on aggressive personalities), who not only play, but also attend the games. But an even more insidious explanation might be that we’ve become incrementally desensitized to this type of behavior over the years. Our culture has definitely changed and, as a result, too many of us have become all too tolerant and ‘understanding’ of this kind of behavior. If players who assault officials were simply thrown out — consistently and permanently — and parents or fans who assault officials arrested and prosecuted, perhaps things would eventually turn around. But before there’s any impetus for that kind of action, we have to recover a sense of outrage about the behavior itself. And before that happens, character has to matter again to all of us, and to matter a lot.

One of the best places to witness character — or the lack of it — has always been on the field of play. And the rules of every game have always served the dual purpose of both regulating the action and keeping the energies of players and fans appropriately channeled and disciplined. We can restore the integrity of games by firmly insisting on respect for the rules. And when athletes once again play with self-imposed discipline, they’ll find their own character restored.

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