Youth Sports’ Bright Spots, Dark Shadows


Valeria Portillo celebrated her 15th birthday this year by the bedside of her father, Ricardo, who was in a coma in a Salt Lake City, Utah hospital. They were supposed to be in Disneyland celebrating.

A few days later, on May 4, Ricardo died of head injuries he received at the hand of a 17-year-old youth league soccer player who didn’t like the penalty referee Portillo called on him.

I can’t imagine what Ricardo’s family is going through, how tragic it must be to lose a father and husband, friend and mentor to such a senseless act. The local community held a memorial service for him and people there praised him as a dedicated and giving human being. There hasn’t been any news about the young man who caused Ricardo’s death. Too bad. If there were; if the coverage of the tragedy were as drawn out as O.J. Simpson’s, it may have helped spur some positive change in the rules governing bad behavior.

I was immersed in the world of youth sports from the day my eldest daughter, Jessie, hit her first t-ball in 1985, until the last time I watched my youngest, Kate, compete in a volleyball league a few short years ago. In between were countless football, basketball, softball, lacrosse, track, soccer, and field hockey competitions across eight or nine states through the rain, cold, and hot sun of most every season for 25 years.

Those were cherished moments.

I remember during one intense soccer game, the goalie for our team got terribly frustrated and asked to be relieved. The problem was we had no one to replace her. The coach, desperate to avoid forfeiting the game, asked for a volunteer. A young girl overcame her apprehension and the fear of embarrassing herself and volunteered, even though she had never set foot in front of a net before. She was my daughter, Erin, who went on to play goalie through grade school, high school, and college and became a Division III All-American. The original goalie? She went on to star in women’s lacrosse.

One memory was of parents from both teams coming together to cheer on a young girl who had just lost her mother. I remember my son, Garrett, stepping up at the last minute to fill in for an absent hurdler. Never having jumped hurdles before, he performed an amazing and unorthodox 2-legged jumping style no one in the stadium had ever seen. It was a feat only someone with incredible spring and free spirit could have pulled off.

I remember the pride my daughter, Abby, recalled listening to the Spar Spangled Banner being played in Sweden just before she and her American teammates took to the field for an international competition.

You can’t deny or diminish the benefit young people derive from organized sports, in school or in the community. My five children all benefitted greatly from athletic competition, even when the experiences weren’t pleasant. They learned sportsmanship. They learned respect for their bodies and their minds. They learned obedience, self-discipline, teamwork, pride, and humility. They learned how to compete, how to control their environment, how to overcome pain and doubt and disappointment. They learned one of the toughest and most elusive of life’s lessons: accepting victory or defeat requires character.

But as the Portillo family knows so well, youth sports also has a sinister side. Parents who drag their 4-year-old out of bed on a Saturday morning and drive three hours to compete in a soccer tournament for toddlers live  there. Parents who see youth sports not as a learning experience, but a future college scholarship and drive their kids relentlessly toward the golden goose live there, too. Many of those same parents are the ones who think black and blue are the team colors and it’s okay to “take out” an opposing player if it means winning the game, or duke it out with another parent.

On the sinister side are coaches who think they’re drill sergeants, who will slap a player on the back for striking a low blow, or physically or verbally abuse a player who they believe isn’t performing to their standards. It is home to coaches who favor one player over another because of their relationship with a parent, and won’t let some team members in the game for fear it will jeopardize a win, a holy grail to some of them.

The most unfortunate, if not tragic, are the young boys and girls who’ve grown up thinking or being taught that violence against another player, or a coach or a referee is an accepted part of the game. They victimized my children at one time or another. They have the scars and I have the doctor bills to prove it.

The sinister side is also the place where some youth sport entrepreneurs run for-profit businesses organizing tournaments to which parents have to pay an arm and a leg and a foot to get their children entered and then pay the other arm and leg for the clothes and equipment sold exclusively on the tournament grounds.

Thankfully, those who reside in the shadows of sports are a minority.

The odds are pretty good that children who play sports will be exposed to dedicated parents, who always fulfill their assignment to bring sip-up drinks, coaches whose goal is not just to win but to build character, and referees like Ricardo Portillo, who get great satisfaction ensuring that athletic competition is fair, wholesome and rewarding.

Parents send their offspring onto the playing field because it reinforces the culture of community to which they want their family to be a part. It creates lasting friendships and builds permanent bonds.

Most of all parents do it because every game is a nail biter, every score a seminal moment in their child’s life, and every bead of perspiration a measure of success and self-improvement. Parents who’ve been there know, too what a great feeling it is to put your arm around a sweaty, bruised, and tired little tyke, console them in defeat or congratulate them in victory, and then reward them on the way home, regardless of the outcome, with a 3-topping pizza and a soda.

The fact that the good outweighs the bad, however, does not diminish the imperative for parents in youth athletics to keep a watchful eye out for the bullies, young and old. It is up to parents to make sure sports competitions are governed by rules that keep the bullies at bay and ensure a safe and nurturing environment for their children, other parents, the coaches and the referees. There is no excuse for abuse, either mental or physical, of any participants, particularly the children. Parents should not stand for it or be intimidated by it.

Footnote: I drive by the youth athletic fields that dot the landscape of suburbia today watching other parents watching their children play ball, knowing it will only be a few short years when I will be able to dust off my folding chair and fill the thermos for my grandson’s first t-ball game. I will let his parents deal with the bullies. I will offer them only two pieces of advice: First, make it fun. Youth sports should be mostly fun. Second, buy him a soccer ball, a catcher’s mitt and a lacrosse stick if you must but also buy him a set of golf clubs so he can hit the links with grandpa and yiayia. That’s one field of competition where bullies don’t go.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.