By Dennis Read
Dennis Read is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.
Athletic Management, 12.5, August/September 2000, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1205/fridayfans.htm
A water bottle thrown on a basketball court ... a parent shouting obscenities from the 12th row ... an official accosted on his way to the locker room.
The problem of unruly crowds is a little bit like airplane crashes. Compared to the total number of sporting events held throughout the country every year, very few are marred by fan misbehavior, but those that are receive enormous amounts of attention.
Some blame a change in societal values, others point to bad examples set in pro sports. But most administrators do agree on one thing: It is a problem that won’t simply disappear on its own. The good news is that many high schools and colleges are developing realistic solutions on their campuses. And they’re finding that such strategies are really not that difficult to implement.
“We’ve all felt that this tidal wave of poor sportsmanship, and not treating people with dignity or respect, has washed over our shore,” says Jim Bloch, Athletic Director at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill. “Now we’re trying to turn it around and send it back the other way. Right now, it may seem like a losing battle, but we’re making progress. It’s less of a losing battle today than it was a month ago or a year ago. I really believe that.”
“I think it’s cyclical and we’re swinging back the other way,” says Bubba Cunningham, Associate Athletic Director at the University of Notre Dame, where one men’s basketball game was marred by some fans deriding a player’s religion and another by objects being thrown on the court. “I think we’ve reached the worst of it, and the students and the fans are taking a step back and asking, ‘What are we doing? Are we supporting our team or just criticizing the other?’”
Another school facing the problem head on is Georgia Southern University. The Eagles were reprimanded by the NCAA after some of their fans got out of hand during last year’s Division I-AA football playoff games. The school has been warned that any further problems could result in the Eagles losing the right to host postseason games.
“We were fortunate enough to win a football championship last year, and now we’re talking about having ‘Championship Fans for a Championship Team,’” says Sam Baker, Athletic Director at GSU. “We had a few fans who confused crude and rude behavior with being a true fan. They thought this was the way to support their team, but that’s not what we’re about, and I don’t think that’s what college athletics is about. So we’ll get more aggressive on that.”
Department of Education
One of the ways Georgia Southern is addressing the problem is through fan education. “One of the biggest things we’re doing is communicating with our fans,” Baker says. “The Southern Conference has a well-written code of conduct and we’ve sent that out to our fans. We’re putting it in with our season tickets, and anybody who comes up and buys a ticket this year will also get a copy of that code.”
Jenks (Okla.) High School took similar steps after an incident following the 1998 state football championship. “We run regular articles concerning sportsmanship in our student bulletin and make an announcement on sportsmanship before all our games,” says Jenks Athletic Director Tommy Burns. “We feel like our kids and our fans conducted themselves very well this year. I don’t recall anything close to an incident.”
At New Trier, Bloch plans to introduce a number of programs that he developed during 18-plus years at neighboring Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Ill. Many of the programs are aimed at the parents of student-athletes, whom he finds tend to be more of a problem than the student fans.
“When we talk about sportsmanship, we have to remind our parents that we are educationally based,” Bloch says. “We’re about process, not product, and I think that’s the way it should be. We’re not like the pros where it’s just about the bottom line.”
At some games, following the introduction of the starting line ups, Bloch has student-athletes from each team read a sportsmanship announcement to the crowd. He also talks to the parents at preseason meetings about why it’s important to treat officials with respect. To get parents to think about why they shouldn’t harangue officials, he sometimes describes an absurd scenario of an umpire berating the player, coach, and parents after the player takes a perfect pitch for a called third strike. Bloch also goes over the school’s code of conduct and what’s expected of student-athletes and parents. Then he’ll have some student-athletes address the parents directly.
“I have two of the finest stand up and say, ‘Moms and Dads, we need you to listen to us,’” Bloch explains. “‘This is what we need from you and this is when it becomes embarrassing. Don’t come in here and boo the officials and do that stuff. It’s embarrassing and it doesn’t help us. This isn’t Soldier Field or the United Center.’ When the parents hear the word ‘embarrassing,’ you can hear a pin drop in there.
“And we’ve had tremendous response from our parents,” Bloch continues. “Did it eradicate all the problems? No. But as an attendee at all our home and away basketball games, I can tell you it sure helped limit them. It sets a tone. It sends a message. It raises the level of expectations.”
As a result of these and other efforts, Bloch has even turned the parents into allies. “It’s a matter of giving them the ammunition,” Bloch says, “and telling them how they might turn to their neighbor—figuratively and literally—and say, ‘You don’t need to do that. That’s not what we do here.’”
While educating spectators can be a great first step, your strategies for game day are just as critical. They start with training your supervising personnel correctly. Whether you use ushers or supervisors, it’s important that these people know the school’s policies and expectations and are trained to enforce them.
“We’re hiring more mature people to be our ushers,” Baker says. “In the old days it was really just making sure everyone was in the right seat. Now they have to be more attuned and more involved in the management of the game because the fans have gotten more aggressive. If somebody is out of line, we ask our fans to get the attention of one of our ushers, who intercede and calm that person down.”
Administrators also suggest that ushers be encouraged to get to know the fans in their seating area. This can help defuse situations before the game even gets started. “We have our ushers talk to the students,” Cunningham says. “We admit the students early and that gives us a chance to talk to them before the arena fills up and the excitement of the game kicks in.”
Another game management policy that many administrators are using involves limiting re-entry to a game. “A couple of years ago, we adopted the Denver Public Schools’ no re-entry policy and it’s amazing how that has curtailed some of the problems we had previously,” says Chris Bullard, Athletic Director for the Jefferson County School District in Colorado. “We have linked those problems to kids going off at halftime and doing inappropriate things—coming back having consumed alcohol or something.
“Now, people who are coming to the games are staying,” Bullard continues. “If they leave, they know they can’t re-enter without paying again and not too many are willing to do that.”
“When I got here they had a no re-entry rule,” Baker says. “But some fans said that was an annoyance to them and they wished they could come in and out, so we changed that rule. But with these latest developments, we’re going back to the no passes-out rule.”
Probably the most important game-day policy, though, is to choose action over inaction. Fortunately, it’s easiest to act when the problems are small, which is also the best approach to avoiding bigger problems.
“Benign neglect isn’t so benign,” Bloch says. “If you’re in a gym and your team starts a cheer that you know is inappropriate and nobody [in authority] moves, the fans will think, ‘I guess it’s OK.’ But if they see the athletic director or three people in yellow vests go up and say something, they think, ‘That kind of stuff doesn’t fly here.’ So, little things like that are actually big things.”
“Sometimes people may hope if you just show some patience, maybe it will take care of itself,” Baker says. “But obviously that position is not going to carry water.”
Many times all the action required is a simple reminder of the type of conduct that’s expected. “We’re not going up to throw somebody out,” Bloch says. “We’re going up to say, ‘That’s not what we do here.’”
Some people don’t want to change, though, so while nobody likes having people removed or barred from games, occasionally that’s the only option for solving the problem. “The best approach has been when the schools take a leadership role,” Bullard says, “with the athletic director and principal calling those individuals in and speaking with them about their behavior. It hasn’t been frequent, but we have some schools in our district that have had to ban some fans from attending athletics events.”
“A while back, some of our fans would bring tennis balls and throw them back and forth,” say Tom D’Armi, Facilities Director at Duke University. “So I got on the PA and said, ‘If you’re throwing those tennis balls and I see you, you’re out.’ And we cleaned that up fast. If they’re doing something like that, I go get them, take their [admission] bracelet and they never get into any more basketball games.”
It’s also important to check any activity you’re not absolutely sure about. What sounds to you like a low murmur may actually be something else. “We had a game where the game management staff couldn’t really hear what some people were saying,” Cunningham says. “But the visiting bench and those people who were closer could. And I think it heightened everyone’s understanding that when there’s something that’s a little gray, you’d better find out exactly what is going on and take decisive action.”
And since trouble can occur any place at any time, administrators also suggest being on alert for the smallest signs of trouble. “After being around students for a number of years, you are able to sense trouble,” Burns says. “It’s not a pretty term, but we call it a ‘gut instinct.’ You have to be looking and thinking ahead and then nine times of out 10 you’ll be able to prevent it [from getting out hand].”
Drawing a Line
Even if you’re prepared to march into the stands at a moment’s notice, the hardest part can be deciding what actions call for your reaction. For that reason, it’s helpful to think about what will not be tolerated beforehand—to draw the line between what is and is not accepted while sitting in the relative calm of an office instead of making that decision in the midst of a packed arena.
“I’ve always said we want our people to come, have a great time, and cheer for our team—not cheer against the opponent,” Baker says. “But I think people today, by nature, are just much more aggressive in how they want to talk to people and what they say to people. It used to be shocking when somebody would cuss and it’s almost become part of our everyday life. Yet, I think we have a duty to try to not have that in our arenas and stadiums.”
“Certainly anything that’s slanderous or would be offensive to any group of people [would be over the line],” Cunningham says, “like any remarks that are against someone’s religion. It’s difficult [drawing a line], because some things are tolerated in some communities while others aren’t. But we’re sensitive about how we treat our guests and that’s what we want to convey to our students.
“I don’t think waving hands and making noise while someone is putting in golf would be appropriate, but I think in basketball that’s become pretty common during free throws,” Cunningham continues. “I think when it gets personal, that’s when it crosses the line.”
“I think if language becomes crude,” Baker says, “or it becomes confrontational in nature, then you’re going over the line.”
But the line isn’t always etched in stone. It can vary from school to school and from year to year. Georgia Southern, for example, will move the line considerably beginning this season.
“In our case, we’re going to have to be very sensitive to what’s going on around us because we can’t afford a faux pas,” Baker says. “I think we’ve moved the line very vigorously and we’re going to expect our fans to understand that.”
The line can also move slightly from game to game. If you begin to feel a heightened sense of excitement in the air, it’s best to be more diligent in your actions. “The style of play, the officiating, and what’s going on in the student body all play into it,” Cunningham says. “I don’t expect our fans to go bonkers if it’s in the middle of final exams, but if you’re talking about a late night game closer to spring break, the chances of something happening are stronger.”
“Usually it’s your blow outs and your tight games between two very good teams that will create [a bad] situation,” Bloch adds.
And even if you’ve seen it all before, there’s a steady supply of outside influences adding new twists to watch out for. “If we watch a professional game or college game on TV and something we haven’t seen before happens, we joke about how we’re going to see that at our games the next weekend,” Bullard says. “And that’s been true. If our fans didn’t have access to the professional level, we’d have better luck in controlling their behavior.”
Calling the Coaches
While game management tactics are important, don’t forget how important a coach can be to these efforts. Whether it’s in preseason meetings with players, parents, and booster clubs, or maintaining their composure on the sidelines, coaches can help set the right tone, or the wrong one.
“It’s so very important that the coaches set an example and conduct themselves in the manner that we’re expecting,” Burns says. “There’s no doubt that the fans will react to a coach in a minute. What we expect from our coaches is that any time they make comments to the media, or whoever else, that they’re positive comments directed toward our team, not things that are negative about the other team or that might excite the other team in any way. And we expect our coaches to visit with our teams before, after, and during games about how they conduct themselves.”
“A lot of it comes down to how we train the coaches,” Bloch says. “Who is sitting the coaches down and agreeing on what our curriculum is? What are our objectives? What is it we’re trying to teach here? Are we just trying to teach baseball or are we trying to use baseball as a vehicle to teach a total set of principals and ideas and values, along with the game of baseball?”
“We have schools that aren’t afraid to suspend their coaches for a contest if they feel their behavior was inappropriate,” Bullard says. “We’ve had coaches suspended from contests by the schools—even in situations where they weren’t ejected—because the school administration felt what occurred was inappropriate, which I think sends a huge message to other coaches, the teams, and the community.”
And sometimes a message from a coach can carry a lot of weight with the fans. After the incident at Notre Dame involving chants about an opponent’s religion, Head Men’s Basketball Coach Matt Doherty sent a letter to the school newspaper addressed to the student body. “That’s when a coach stands up and says ‘That’s beyond what is in good taste and what you should do, and you know better than that,’” Cunningham says. “I don’t know if the students liked hearing that, but they appreciated hearing it, knowing he was right.”
One School at a Time
With the attention unruly fans receive, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the overwhelming majority of people who go to games appreciate efforts to keep everyone in line. “I think all of the policies and procedures and rules we have are good ones, no matter what the situation,” Burns says. “We want our people to enjoy themselves and cheer and do all the things a normal fan should do. We just don’t want anyone to do those things they shouldn’t do, like jump over a fence or run on to the field, or approach the people on the other side. But [those rules] doesn’t bother the good fans because they’re not going to do that anyway.”
So the battle is one worth fighting, if for no other reason than to avoid the embarrassment of an ugly scene or to keep people coming back because they enjoy games. But that can’t happen if administrators wait for someone else to take care of the problem. Conferences, state associations, and the NCAA can emphasize sportsmanship all they want, but it’s a battle that can only be won school by school, one person at a time.
“A lot of athletic directors in Illinois have said, ‘Why doesn’t the IHSA (Illinois High School Association) fix this?” Bloch says. “But we’re the ones in the trenches. Every time I let a parent keep berating an official, I’m the problem, not the IHSA.”
And while it may seem like an uphill battle, there are those moments of victory to savor. “One of my greatest memories was during one of the home Friday night football games at Glenbrook North,” Bloch says. “It was packed. On the third or fourth play of the game there was a questionable call. A Glenbrook North fan started in on the official. I heard it and turned and took about 10 steps across the track to go to the bleachers. And there was one of our boosters near this guy. He put up his hand like a stop sign to me and yelled down from the 10th row, ‘Jim, stay there. I’ll take care of it.’ That’s when I knew that we had arrived.
“Did we fix it all?” he says. “No, we didn’t. Is there a change? You bet.”
Sidebar - A Summit for Fans
While many individual schools and conferences have developed programs to improve sportsmanship, the Illinois State High School Association (IHSA) is attempting to cast an even wider net on the problem through a Fan Sportsmanship Summit it will hold in November. The IHSA has previously held a series of sportsmanship summits for players, coaches, and administrators, but this is the first venture aimed directly at fans.
“As a state association we’re geared towards the students and the schools themselves, so this is a step out for us,” says IHSA Administrative Specialist Jeff Creek. “I think this can really open some doors and reach some people we might not have normally reached.”
The summit, which will be held in conjunction with the girls’ state volleyball championships, will cover some of the same ground as previous summits, including information on sportsmanship, respect, and how to handle adversity. Plans also call for smaller breakout sessions to introduce different school and conference sportsmanship programs, provide ideas on how to raise money to fund these types of campaigns, and discuss some of the legal issues surrounding unsportsmanlike situations. Sessions on rule interpretations are also being considered.
“We’d like each of the schools to send a representative, whether it’s the athletic director or principal or a coach, and also booster-club personnel or other fans from the community who are involved with the school,” Creek says. “We want to get people here who are the leaders in their communities, so they can go back to their communities with something that will be a positive in the sportsmanship realm.”
The IHSA summit is not designed to replace individual schools’ efforts, but rather to simply spread the message farther. “What happens sometimes is that one school will have a big sportsmanship push while another won’t,” he says. “Then you’ll have people saying, ‘They don’t do it, so why should we?’ If it comes from the state association, then it’s not just one school or one community, it’s a push coming from the whole state. I think that allows some schools to have a little more support in their communities.”
To read articles previously published in Athletic Management on this topic, please visit our Web site at and type “sportsmanship” in the search field.