Ohio Policy Responds to Athlete-Fan Fights

By Staff

Athletic Management, 17.3, April/May 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1703/wufights.htm

It’s not often that a state high school athletic association receives a report of an incident it has never dealt with before, but that was exactly the case in November for the Ohio High School Athletic Association. Players in a boys’ basketball game had left the court and engaged in a physical fight with fans in the bleachers.

The OHSAA responded by creating a new policy for its member schools. Under the rule, a student-athlete who leaves the playing area to engage in a verbal or physical altercation with fans will be suspended from all interscholastic athletics for the remainder of the school year. In addition, the athlete’s school will be placed on probation until it has conducted a detailed investigation and reported to the OHSAA what caused the incident, what was done to diffuse it, and what new measures were put into place to prevent it from happening again.

The OHSAA is the first high school athletic association in the country to create a policy directly addressing athletes leaving the playing area, and some administrators in other states have argued that the action is premature. Deborah Moore, OHSAA Assistant Commissioner, disagrees. "The penalties are severe, and that was by intent," she says. "We wanted to send the message that this behavior is absolutely unacceptable in educational athletics and will not be tolerated."

Getting that message across to student-athletes is especially important, Moore says, since they may get a conflicting message from watching what happens at higher levels of play. The Ohio incident closely followed the late-November brawls at a Pacers-Pistons game in the NBA and during a South Carolina-Clemson collegiate football game.

"Is it definite that our student-athletes were directly imitating those players? No," says Moore. "But we do know that high school student-athletes are influenced by what they see at higher levels of play and it does affect their behavior. We expect our administrators to be aware of that and to discuss it with their student-athletes."

According to Dave Seiss, Athletic Director at Westerville South (Ohio) High School and President of the OHSAA Board of Control, which approved the new policy, athletic directors must direct their coaches to address the issue with their teams. "It starts with the first practice," Seiss says. "The coach’s message needs to be, ‘Your job is to take care of business on the court. If there is inappropriate behavior in the stands, don’t respond. It will be taken care of by the adults in charge.’

"And then you have to make sure that there are adults in charge," he continues. "You must ensure that there is adequate supervision, with administrators or security personnel in place and visible, so that if fans do misbehave, it can be quelled very quickly. When players know they can rely on adults to take care of fans who taunt them or get out of line, they are less likely to try to address the situation themselves."

Moore suggests that coaches also talk about specific situations with their athletes. "Coaches need to discuss self-control with their student-athletes using ‘what if’ scenarios," she says. "They need to say, ‘If a fan yells an insult directly at you, using your name, how are you going to respond?’ Those discussions need to take place frequently."

Reaction from Ohio coaches and administrators to the new policy has been mostly positive, Moore says. "A few have said that this is too harsh, but the majority have been supportive," she says. "They’ve told us they’re using this as a teachable moment for their young people and as a way to address the issue."

Since incidents of high school athletes fighting with fans have been relatively rare, some have suggested that enacting specific penalties makes the assumption that some athletes are going to do it and perhaps even suggests the behavior. Moore, however, finds that logic flawed.

"I absolutely disagree with that line of reasoning," she says. "We believe it is always better to make the expectations clear beforehand than to react to incidents after they happen. In fact, maybe if we had adopted this policy sooner, we would have prevented the incident that did occur. Now that it’s in place, we hope it will be such an effective deterrent that we’ll never have to use it."

For a look at a previously published article in Athletic Management on how to work with fans to prevent fan-athlete problems, visit:
www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1604/cheerpressure.htm.