Cheer Pressure

Peer pressure is a big motivator when student fans get out of control. It can also be your greatest resource for keeping them in control.

By Laura Smith

Laura Smith is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 16.4, June/July 2004,

"Our fans made all the difference tonight. They helped us win the game."

Most coaches have issued this quote at one time or another, with good reason. Whether they are the sixth man, 10th man, or 12th man, student fans are part of the home court advantage. They liven up your arena, bolster a team during a close contest, and give your games more meaning.

But they are also becoming well known for crossing the line of decent behavior. And that’s when the home court advantage can become a home court disaster. Students storming the playing area, chanting obscenities, and holding signs that disparage a specific player can turn family entertainment into an ugly experience. And while there are numerous reasons for over-the-top fan behavior, one is that schools unknowingly encourage it.

"The coaching staff and administration tell the fans that a home court advantage is vital to a winning season," says Tye Chapman, Assistant Director for Marketing at the University of Illinois. "Over the past several years, what has been conveyed is, ‘You are a big part of it, and anything you can do is helpful.’ When administrators don’t define what we mean by that, student fan groups take it and run with it—and some of them will go too far."

Merrill Melnick, a sports sociologist who teaches a course on the subject at the State University of New York at Brockport, agrees. "Fans are told, ‘Don’t just watch—do something to help your team. Create a home court advantage any way you can,’" he says. "Then schools leave it up to the students to determine what that means. If schools don’t actively educate against poor behavior, athletic departments and coaches may actually be encouraging it."

"When we encourage fans to get involved, we can’t leave it up to them to figure out what that means," adds Chapman. "It’s up to us to rein the behavior back in and work together to create a good game atmosphere."

Several schools have found that the best way to begin that process is by establishing direct connections with student fans. These schools have engaged students in a discussion of the issue, collaborated with them to set standards, and helped them become part of the solution. In the process, they’ve turned student fans into their biggest allies in promoting an atmosphere that is passionate, energetic, positive, and safe.

With just 4,500 students, Division I-AA Lehigh University is not a hotbed of unruly sports fans. So when Athletic Director Joe Sterrett decided to create a program to promote positive fan behavior, some questioned his priorities.

"We had a lot of discussions about how big of an issue crowd behavior was," says Sterrett. "Some people said, ‘We haven’t had any big problems, so we don’t have to worry about it.’ But I believe that the time to start worrying about it is before anything major happens. Rather than simply not having any major problems, we wanted to develop a reputation for having a positive atmosphere. The first step was me as athletic director saying, ‘This is important to us and we’re going to have to work on it.’"

At the Illinois, which averages 16,000 fans per basketball game, the stakes may be higher, but the first step was the same. "The most important thing is to get the entire administration on board," Chapman says. "If they’re not, it’s just one athletic administrator preaching to the kids, and that’s not going to work."

At Lehigh, Sterrett asked Greg Schulze, Assistant Athletic Director for Events and Facilities, and Glenn Hofmann, Assistant Athletic Director for Communications and Marketing, to spearhead the effort. "It was very important the initiative came from the top," Schulze says. "Once that was established, my staff met to discuss our areas, and Greg’s staff met on his areas, and then we met as a group. At no point is anyone working in isolation—it’s a team effort."

Other members of the team include the coaches and the students themselves. "Student fans, especially, see the coach as the ultimate authority." Melnick says. "A coach who gets hysterical and rants and raves sends a message straight to the stands that negative behavior is okay. Getting the coaches to buy in is critical to the success of any initiative."

"We include all of our head coaches in the planning," says Sterrett. "We tell them that this is a big priority for us, and that our intention is not to make the atmosphere less enthusiastic at games, but to make it safer and more positive. And then we tell them we need their help."

Building a relationship with student fans is just as critical. This can begin with making contact with the leaders of organized student groups or simply with students who show up to games on a regular basis. "To be effective, the momentum really has to come from the students themselves," says Ron Guenther, Athletic Director at Illinois. "Because they have a lot of input, our students have taken ownership of the process, and it has really changed the atmosphere at our games."

"Students have to buy into it," Sterrett adds. "And the best way to get them to do that is to involve them in creating the plan."

Dan Esposito, a sophomore at Lehigh, says it was the administration’s friendly, up-beat approach that started things on the right foot with his group of 25-30 friends who never miss a basketball game. "We have a lot of respect for the administrators, and we want to help them create a positive atmosphere," Esposito says. "And that is a direct result of the way they approached us to begin with."

Once his group had started attending games regularly, Esposito says, administrators made a habit of coming over to them after the final buzzer, shaking hands, chatting about the game, and thanking them for supporting the team. Then Hofmann took it a step further—he arranged a couple of bus trips to away games and accompanied them on the trips.

"They were really good to us, and they listened to us," Esposito says. "They asked our opinion. That made us want to respect them in return. It was really important that they established a positive relationship with us from the start, instead of waiting until something went wrong and coming down on us."

Sterrett attributes Lehigh’s success to Hofmann’s and Schulze’s ability to relate to students. "The students don’t see Glenn and Greg as hall monitors—they see them as fellow fans who are as interested in the team’s success as they are," he says. "It’s important to find the people on your staff who have the desire and ability to work with students in that way. To be effective, they have to be able to get down on the kids’ level without compromising their core values."

An often-successful strategy is to let the students see the negative image they might be creating for their school. That approach worked at the University of Wisconsin.

"Several months ago, the school received some letters of complaint from another team’s fans following an event," says Steve Malchow, Associate Athletic Director. "We shared the letters with our student body, and asked them to help us change the culture at our games. A number of student groups stepped forward—academic honor societies, the Greek system, the two student newspapers, and others. We began meeting with them on a regular basis to study the problem and come up with solutions."

Relationships between administrators and students also eliminate a major ingredient in fan misbehavior: the anonymity factor. "When there are a lot of people around you yelling, you feel like you can get away with things a lot more easily," Esposito says. "But once we got to know Glenn and Greg, we didn’t want to let them down. We knew we’d be personally disappointing them."

Chapman has seen the same trend at Illinois. "I work with about 10 students from our student fan group, the Orange Krush, on a regular basis, and they know me really well," he says. "They’ve said to me, ‘You know, Tye, if we do something wrong, it’s not just going to reflect badly on us. It will reflect badly on you, and we don’t want to let you down.’"

Once administrators have developed a relationship with the leaders of their student fan sections, the effect will often spread to others in the stands, says Peter Bothner, Athletic Director at Nazareth College. "I work directly with the leaders of our fan group, the Cadera Crazies," he says. "I’ve asked them for their help in getting the rest of the student section on board, and they’ve been wonderful. If you can get the leaders to work with you, the rest of the student body is probably going to follow."

"One of the best things that has come out of this is the way the group we work with influences the rest of the student section," agrees Hofmann. "Some students who don’t usually attend came to one of our basketball games and started an inappropriate chant. Without me having to say a thing, our regular fans told them, ‘That’s not the way we do things here.’ At that point, the students were regulating themselves."

Along with establishing a connection with student fans, administrators need to involve them in a dialogue about what is and is not appropriate fan behavior so that guidelines can be agreed upon. Several schools have successfully arrived at definitions everyone can live with through open discussions with students, using the meetings to work together rather than lecturing students or laying down the law. "You have to avoid the perception that you’re legislating their fun," Bothner says. "If students have that perception, you’ll lose them from the start."

Guenther agrees. "We used meetings to create a dialogue with students about what constitutes a good atmosphere, and we asked them how we can work with them to keep it in good taste without taking the fun out of it," he says. "Our discussions were a give and take, and we made it clear that they would have a say in determining policies."

To start the discussions, Lehigh administrators asked their student group, which included members of their student-athlete advisory council, what they consider a good atmosphere at games. "There were some pretty heavy discussions where people were definitely not on the same page," Sterrett says. "A lot of them had the idea that a good atmosphere involved intimidating or harassing the opposing players."

"We spent a lot of time getting those perspectives and listening to what students had to say," Hofmann adds. "We also asked student-athletes to talk about what happens at their games and how they perceive it. Then we began working toward a definition of what is acceptable. We arrived at a more uniform standard, but it took some good discussions to get there."

One key question Lehigh administrators asked students to think about in developing their "House Rules" was: Would you be embarrassed to have your parents or little brother or sister sitting next to you? "If they could say no to that question, they have a good framework to start with," Sterrett says.

In all areas, they tried to frame the rules in positive rather than negative terms. "For example, one of our rules is, ‘Handheld signs in good taste are welcome.’" Hofmann says. "Making signs has become one of the most popular things fans do, and it can cause a lot of problems. We recognize that they want to do it, so instead of banning signs, we said, ‘Great! Make signs—with certain restrictions.’"

Another guideline involves addressing comments toward specific players. "There is a trend of student groups attacking one player personally," Chapman says. "They draw on personal information or rumors—a family situation or a DWI, for example—and use it as ammunition. That absolutely has to be eliminated. We instill in our students that it is unacceptable. We tell them that if they want to do a specific cheer, make it something clever about the other team’s mascot or the town they live in, not something about a player."

Administrators agree that a lot of fan misbehavior can be addressed through one guideline: Cheer for your team, and don’t degrade the other team. "It’s a simple concept, but fans have lost sight of it," Bothner says. "So we spend a lot of time going over that message."

With policies in place, the rest of the student body must be brought into the fold. At Wisconsin, Malchow has found the school’s two student newspapers to be a useful conduit. "We made sure they were invited to all of the meetings we had with students, so they could easily report on the meetings and write stories about the topic," he says. "We also plan to buy advertising to publicize the fan guidelines."

Then there’s the more personal approach. "The student group we worked with told us that messages from student-athletes are particularly powerful, " says Malchow. "So another plan we have is to ask our student-athletes to go to freshman orientation next fall and talk to new students about being a good fan, letting them know what our policies are here."

Once students arrive at an event, it’s important that they continue to receive clear messages about expectations for their behavior. Lehigh’s "House Rules" are posted in several prominent places in each venue and reiterated twice during every game. The first message comes at the beginning of the game and is made by the public address announcer. At halftime, the House Rules are stated again, but this time, it’s a recorded message from a member of the team that’s playing.

"When fans hear an athlete who’s actually playing in that game talk about how they want the fans to act in supporting them, it’s very powerful," Hofmann says. "It would be embarrassing to fly in the face of that."

Malchow plans on using a similar tactic at Wisconsin. "We’re getting new scoreboards with video this year," he says, "and we’re going to have our student-athletes across all our sports record messages about fan behavior, which we’ll play during down-times in the game."

Illinois has another means of communicating with fans during basketball games. "We have a publication we call ‘Hoops Scoop,’" says Chapman. "We pass it out to the student section at every game. It’s a list of all the cheers we do during games, and it contains some other tidbits and fun facts to encourage them to read it. When they do, they also get a message about how we define appropriate behavior."

Lehigh uses out-of-season student-athletes to help reinforce the message during games, with a program called "Adopt a Team." "One team partners with another from a different season, and they attend that team’s home games," Schulze explains. "We ask them to cheer in a positive way and to help disseminate our message about positive fan behavior to the students around them."

Reinforcing the guidelines during games also involves administrators making their presence known. "We take turns circulating through students areas, especially during heated contests," Sterrett says. "During football games, I’ll wander through the end zone embankment where our students sit. I’ll stay in the midst of them and say, ‘This is a terrific game, isn’t it?’ That way, they know we’re there."

Enforcing the rules when fans do engage in inappropriate behavior is the last important piece of the puzzle. "When a student acts in a way that violates the rules, we approach them immediately," Schulze says. "We let them know that their behavior is inappropriate and ask them to stop. In most cases, they’re embarrassed, because their friends are watching, and that’s okay with us. Usually, the behavior stops there.

"If it persists," he continues, "we go back, this time with a uniformed security officer, and ask them again to stop. If they still continue the behavior, we escort them out of the venue."

However, even enforcement can be handled in a way that educates students and reinforces a positive relationship with the athletic department. "We had an incident where a student on a dare ran across the basketball court during the game," Sterrett says. "Instead of getting extremely punitive with him, we asked our dean of students if we could handle sanctioning him within athletics. As a punishment, we made him work for us in a game staging area. He came to understand all the effort and forethought that goes into creating a positive atmosphere at a game, and he came away from the experience with a completely different level of respect. And I’m pretty sure he didn’t keep that experience to himself. I’m sure he told at least one other student. And that student probably told someone else.

"Working with student fans is not a situation where you just write down a list of rules and hand them out and everybody follows them," Sterrett continues. "Little by little, we’re developing a reputation, we’re developing a relationship, and we’re making progress."

In February, a high school boys’ basketball regional title game in Illinois turned bloody when a No. 1 ranked team from Cairo High School fell to Massac County High School. The upset prompted a brawl among fans that landed five people in the hospital, including the Cairo coach, who needed several stitches after a bottle struck him in the head, and one Cairo cheerleader, who suffered a broken rib and internal injuries.

Crowd control at high school games is similar to that at college events, but has nuances of its own. The main difference is that parents can be the biggest instigators of poor behavior.

"Almost all the fan problems we see—and this was the case with the Cairo and Massac County incident—come from a loss of perspective about what interscholastic sports is about," says Marty Hickman, Executive Director of the Illinois High School Association. "There can be no answer to fan behavior problems at the high school level without educating parents about the proper role of high school sports. Once they understand that, their demeanor at a contest changes dramatically."

At Homewood-Flossmoor High School in Flossmoor, Ill., Athletic Director Ken Shultz meets with parents to set parameters. "We require all of our parents to attend a sportsmanship meeting every year," he says. "We go over our fan code of conduct with them and tell them that violations will not be tolerated. That face-to-face contact is essential."

Hickman also stresses the importance of enforcing school and league policies the moment a fan is disruptive. "It’s a very difficult thing to do, because it almost always leads to a confrontation, which can be very uncomfortable," he says. "But you have to be willing to approach a parent who is violating your rules and say, ‘Your conduct does not live up to the standard our school has set for fan behavior.’ You have to do it tactfully, but you also have to be willing to do whatever it takes to get them to conform—even if it means asking them to leave."

Setting clear boundaries ahead of time for student fans is important as well. "High school kids see the fan behavior at the levels above them, and they want to emulate it," Hickman says. "Very few of them actually think they have the right to chant obscenities at a game, but they will test the boundaries if you don’t set the limits."

Plenty of supervision is the essential deterrent. "The more people you can have from each school, the better," Schultz says. "The more people they see in a supervisory mode, dressed in a vest that says ‘Security,’ the less likely fans are to try anything disruptive."

At Homewood-Flossmoor, Schultz increases the number of chaperones at games by paying faculty members to be ushers. "They patrol the aisles and bleachers throughout the game," he says. "They spot anything that goes wrong immediately. We rely on them heavily, because they know our kids. They’re our first line of defense, and they’ve been worth their weight in gold."

Schultz provides faculty new to the job with a handout describing their duties and makes sure they work closely with an experienced usher until they’re comfortable with the role. "They enjoy it, and they get paid for it," he adds. "I don’t think it would work nearly as well if we asked them to do it without paying them."

In addition, the 33 schools in Homewood-Flossmoor’s conference have all agreed to send at least one administrator and one or two deans to accompany teams on away games. "This policy is great, because they know their own fans," Schultz says. "If there are any problems with their crowd, we allow them to handle it."

Often, the prime time for fan misbehavior is not during a game, but immediately after it ends. High schools and colleges are dealing with a growing trend of fans rushing onto the court or field following a game, sometimes with disastrous consequences. However, attempting to deter the behavior can cause risks of its own, which leads to a quandary for administrators: Should you block all storming or try to allow a safe version of it?

"Our policy is not to allow people on the court or the field, period," says Joe Sterrett, Athletic Director at Lehigh University. "We repeat the policy often during the game and remind fans that there could be consequences if they ignore it."

Providing a physical barrier between fans and the court or field helps. "The way a facility is structured can make it so that storming isn’t even a thought in most people’s minds," Sterrett says. "Fences around fields and railings at the base of bleachers can go a long way. Where you don’t have a physical barrier, use more security people."

High school gymnasiums offer particular challenges, since the base of the bleachers is often just feet from the court with no physical barrier. At Homewood-Flossmoor High School in Flossmoor, Ill., Athletic Director Ken Shultz uses an inexpensive yet effective solution. "We have ropes that run along each side of the gym, and right before the end of a game, the ropes go up," he explains. "Every 10 to 12 feet, one of our security guards or ushers stands and holds the rope. We do it for every game, not just big rivalries, so that our fans get used to not going onto the court."

In some cases, however, preventing storming is unrealistic. "Taking measures can make it so it’s not a regular occurrence," says Greg Schulze, Assistant Athletic Director for Events and Facilities at Lehigh. "But when a large number of fans spontaneously have a desire to share in a big victory by taking the court, it can be foolish and dangerous to try to stop them, and you have to have a back-up plan.

"We pay close attention at the end of a game, and if we see it start to happen, we immediately get as many security people as possible in front of the crowd and make eye contact with as many of the people in the front as possible," he continues. "We start talking to them and letting them know what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t. We say, ‘Okay, we’re going to let you come out and congratulate the team, but be safe about it. Go slowly. Do not go over the railings. Use the stairs.’ We keep repeating the message, and that approach has worked well for us."

"You can’t always stop storming, so you have to plan for it," agrees Peter Bothner, Athletic Director at Nazareth College. "We focus on keeping it very brief. We let them out there, with a lot of security, and then after about 30 seconds, we start saying, ‘Okay, it’s time to get out.’ You let them jump and cheer and get their energy out, but you keep it controlled by quickly starting to move them back. We haven’t had any incidents using that approach."

At the University of Illinois, the Orange Krush student fan group not only supports the men’s basketball team on the court, it also supports the team’s fund-raising efforts. Five years ago, the students pledged to raise $250,000 to endow a scholarship, and they fulfilled their promise this year.

"It’s a scholarship coming completely from student fans and going to a student-athlete," says Tye Chapman, Assistant Director for Marketing. "As far as I know, it’s the only student fan group in the country that raises money."

The underlying result is that it gives the student fans a positive reputation that they are invested in maintaining, both on and off the court. "They’ve said to me, ‘We raise all this money and people see us as positive, and doing negative stuff at games just doesn’t fit in with that,’" Chapman says.

"When fans get out of control, it’s often because they are so intent on being part of things—on having an effect on the outcome," he continues. "Giving them a role allows them that sense of connection with the program, in a positive way."

This spring, the Orange Krush made another pledge, to raise $300,000 for the Rod Cardinal Sports Medicine Fund, named in honor of the retiring head athletic trainer for men’s basketball. The fund will help the team’s student athletic trainers pay for classes, testing fees, travel, and an end-of-the-year banquet. The group also raises money for local charities.

Funds are raised when Orange Krush members collect pledges for each three-point shot the basketball team makes during the season. "Each person they ask typically pledges 15 or 20 cents per shot, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you have 700 Orange Krush members, each raising $3 to $7 a shot, and the team makes 300 shots a year, it adds up quickly," Chapman says.

The group works with Chapman to maintain a database of donors and sends out invoices after the season ends. Grant applications are collected from local charities, and Orange Krush members decide where the money will go. The athletic department provides incentives, too. The top 100 pledge-getters were awarded this year with a road trip to a game against Iowa.