Sportsmanship and self-control

Referee death should force society to face responsibility issue

Infants have no sense of perspective and no inkling of what responsibility is. And for good reason: They don’t have any responsibilities, except to themselves, and no life experience to see the big picture.

Such things are not innate. They must be learned, and in many cases taught.

By the time they are, say, 17 – one year shy of the dawning of legal adulthood – they ought to know right from wrong. They should have some perspective about the world and their place in it, including their responsibilities to it and the people around them.

When they don’t, things can go horribly wrong. People can die.

Such is the case in the tragic death of a soccer referee in Utah who died a week after an angry 17-year-old player punched him in the head after being called for a foul.

Somewhere in that little pea brain, the youth blamed his own transgression on the adult referee who called the foul on him. Even if the foul was in error, there was hardly any cause to strike out. It was a game, in a recreational league, to boot – a place where fun, not winning, was supposed to be paramount.

Absolutely no sense of personal responsibility for his own actions. Utterly no perspective about the relative long-term importance of the foul call. He just lashes out, as if the outer world is to blame for any insult or injury he feels inside. He had not the least notion that he, and only he, was responsible for his feelings and actions.

The shocking death of referee and family man Ricardo Portillo has sent shock waves throughout the sporting world nationwide, and perhaps beyond. We will no doubt have a national dialogue, as we must, about sportsmanship and self-control – not just among players, but their parents, friends, relatives and other fans, who often act as the flash points for what amounts to adult-sized playground violence.

The discussion is sorely needed. Fans and players are often out of control, egged on by a society that quite often places too high a premium on victory, rather than ethics.

But this is not a sports story alone and sportsmanship isn’t the core issue, though it’s a key component.

Instead, the core issue is responsibility – and a growing lack of it. And it transcends sports or any other field of human endeavor.

Americans have a deep-seated sense of their rights, thanks in large part to a Constitution and Bill of Rights that spell them out. What we frequently fail to grasp is the accompanying responsibilities of a free people and a civil society.

Again, an understanding of our responsibilities to each other and to life is not automatic. It must be learned.

While we’re talking about sportsmanship, let us also discuss the extent to which American society – families, schools, churches and more – is teaching responsibility.

An important, if heartbreaking and tragically belated, lesson must be learned from the death of Ricardo Portillo.

First, there must be accountability. The youth, initially held for aggravated assault, must now be tried for homicide.

His story should be a cautionary tale told far beyond the fields of play. And it should be the catalyst for a national dialogue not just on sportsmanship, but the broader issue of man’s responsibility to man.

Nothing could be a better tribute to Ricardo Portillo.

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