Sixth Man

As fan misbehavior continues to rise, proactive teams are figuring out how to create an atmosphere that encourages good sportsmanship in the stands.

By Laura Smith

Laura Smith is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management.

Coaching Management, 12.6, August 2004,

The date was Feb. 27, 2004, and 2,200 spectators had packed into the Massac County High School gymnasium in Metropolis, Ill., to watch the Patriots square off against Cairo High School for a regional title. Ranked No. 1 in the state in their class, Cairo had not lost a game all year, and its fans expected a victory. Massac County fans were eager to see Cairo’s winning streak brought to an end.

The game remained close throughout. But with seconds to go, a three-point shot by a Cairo senior fell short of its mark, and Massac County won, 64-61.

As the final buzzer sounded, fans from both sides stormed the court. Insults—and glass bottles—were hurled. Six police agencies, five ambulances, and two hours later, the fans were finally brought under control. But five people were hospitalized, including the Cairo coach, who needed several stitches after a bottle struck him in the head. A Cairo cheerleader suffered a broken rib and internal injuries.

The incident didn’t end there for either school. Newspaper headlines carried the story for days, and the Illinois High School Association opened an investigation, ultimately suspending a Cairo assistant coach and sanctioning the program.

Another February incident had even more disastrous results. A senior high school basketball player in Tucson, Ariz., was tackled by celebrating fans after a big win and suffered a torn carotid artery in his neck. The injury led to a stroke that left him partially paralyzed.

In March, University of Maryland fans chanted obscenities during a nationally televised game against Duke, earning the school weeks worth of negative headlines. When some fans insisted that using curse words was their constitutional right, Maryland administrators had to turn to the state’s attorney general’s office for help. They eventually received the go-ahead to draft a policy to stop the behavior.

Whether they end in hospital visits or bad publicity, instances of fan misbehavior at basketball contests are becoming increasingly common. "It’s no longer a problem waiting to happen," says Jim Haney, Executive Director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. "It has happened."

"Given the trends that we’ve seen, you have to wonder where it’s going to stop," adds Tom Brennan, Head Men’s Coach at the University of Vermont. "Is it far fetched that something major could break out among fans at a college basketball venue, with disastrous results? Not anymore."

Simply responding to incidents after they’ve happened is not enough. "We can’t wait until something negative happens before we act," says Bob Lowery, Assistant Executive Director of the South Dakota High School Activities Association. "If we’re going to improve this situation, we have to start working with fans to establish guidelines before a game ever takes place."

"Turning the tide on fan behavior is going to take a concerted effort of coaches and administrators," agrees Marty Hickman, Executive Director of the Illinois High School Association. "And coaches can be the most powerful piece of that puzzle."

A Balancing Act
The first step in controlling fan behavior is understanding the tightrope you, as a coach, are walking. Stands filled with demonstrative fans are a big part of the home-court advantage every coach wants to encourage. Problems occur, however, when coaches and administrators don’t temper that encouragement with clear guidelines. Fans can end up getting the message that anything goes.

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

"Coaches especially need to be very careful what they’re communicating to fans," Haney says. "Their message has to be balanced. They need to say, ‘We want you to create a fervor in the building to help us. And we want you to do that in a way that reflects what our program is about, and in ways that we can be proud of.’"

"I tell our fans, ‘I’ve seen it when we had 300 people in the stands, and now the stands are full every night and people are rocking and rolling. It’s a great thing, and keep doing it, because you are helping us succeed,’" Brennan says. "But I also say that I expect them to support us in a way that makes people leave our building saying, ‘I respect their program, and I respect the way they do things.’"

They’re Watching You
One of the most powerful ways coaches communicate with fans is through their own behavior. "When something happens in a basketball game, the first thing fans do is look to the bench to see how the coach is reacting," Haney says. "At that moment, the coach’s actions are going to either add to or defuse the response of the crowd."

"The passionate fan really feeds off the demeanor of the coach," agrees Brennan. "Let’s say a questionable call is made, and all of your fans are on their feet booing. At that moment, every eye is on you. If you start ranting and raving at the official, your fans start thinking, ‘That wasn’t just a bad call. That was an awful call.’ If you stay in control, they’re going to move on. Your behavior is what is going to temper the situation or add fuel to the fire."

"Student fans, especially, see the coach as the ultimate authority," adds Melnick. "A coach who gets hysterical and rants and raves sends a message straight to the stands that negative behavior is okay."

Body language is just as important as words. "Even if a coach is just being animated, not really saying anything abusive, the crowd often reacts to that," says Ken Shultz, Athletic Director at Homewood-Flossmoor High School in Flossmoor, Ill. "All the fans can see are the coach’s gestures and facial expressions. It’s the coach’s responsibility to keep those under control as well. It’s fine to discuss a call with an official, but coaches need to ask their questions in a polite manner and accept the response."

Another nuance fans watch is a coach’s interaction with his or her athletes. "Let’s say a player is involved in a hard intentional foul," Hickman says. "If the coach is quick to pull that player out of the game and talk to him, that sets the tone for the fans. Or if a player is verbally combative with an official, and the coach sits him down, the coach has just told the fans what type of behavior the school expects."

Coaches also need to educate their players that no matter what is said to them, they cannot respond, especially in a hostile gym. "We always try to be aware of what the environment we’re going into is like," says Scott Didrickson, Assistant Coach for the University of New Mexico men’s team. "Before the game, we’ll tell our players, ‘The student section here is really loud and you’re going to hear some things you may not like. Block them out, focus on your game, and don’t respond.’ The message is simple and there’s nothing really Earth-shattering you can tell your players, but you have to keep going over your expectations so that they will be prepared."

Coaches, themselves, need to remember not to respond to fans’ taunts. "Early on in my career, I was a one-up guy," Brennan says. "A fan would say something to me, and I’d say something back. I’ve learned that’s never a good idea. You cannot win. No matter how clever your comment, you’re the one who’s going to look bad in the end, because your behavior is under the microscope. I’ve always told my players not to respond to anything that’s said in the stands, and now I follow that rule too."

Of course, maintaining composure in the heat of the battle is sometimes easier said than done. "I’ve learned to tell myself things that help calm me down," Brennan says. "For example, when I disagree with a call, I tell myself, ‘I don’t need to rant and rave, because my team is good enough that we can take five or eight calls a game that are just ridiculous. We’re going to play right through them.’ If you control your thinking, you’ll keep your composure, and that sends a message to the fans that, ‘Okay, it was bad, but it’s not going to fester.’"

"Staying in control is like any other skill. It takes time to learn," Haney adds. "After a game, reflect on how well you handled things that didn’t go your way. Sometimes you’ll say, ‘I got a little bit out of control there. I want to handle that differently next time.’ The good news is, there’s usually another opportunity right around the corner."

Direct Connections
Communicating with fans doesn’t have to happen only from a distance, though. At Lehigh University, for example, administrators got proactive through ongoing, direct communications with student fans.

"We had a lot of discussions about how big an issue crowd behavior was," says Athletic Director Joe 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 this 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 key was initiating contact with a core group of student fans who attend every men’s basketball game. Administrators stop by the student section after games to thank the group for their support, and the head coach and one or two players shake hands with these fans and chat about the game. The coach also sends occasional e-mails to student-fans highlighting important plays or talking about upcoming contests.

At Nazareth College, Head Men’s Coach Mike Daley addresses students at freshman orientation and makes contact with the leaders of the Kidera Crazies, the school’s student-fan group. "I get to know the seniors in that group during the preseason," Daley says. "Then I go over and talk with them at the end of games, and we have pizza parties for them. I let them know that their support is sincerely appreciated, and at the same time, I encourage them to support our team with class."

At the University of Illinois, coaches set the tone for the season by inviting the student-fan group, the Orange Krush, to watch the second half of a preseason practice. "At the end of practice, the coach and players hang around and talk with the students about the upcoming season and about what kind of fan support is helpful," says Tye Chapman, Assistant Director for Marketing at Illinois. "When the coach says, ‘This is what we like and this is what we don’t like,’ it resonates a lot louder with them than an administrator yelling at them at a game."

Orange Krush members have also been invited to lunch and golf outings with the coaching staff. And during the coldest part of the 2003-04 season, Head Men’s Coach Bruce Webber showed up while students were waiting on line for tickets, bringing them 80 pizzas and mugs of hot chocolate.

At Vermont, Brennan instituted a clinic night for student-fans this year, scheduling it for a Friday after classes. "We had a scrimmage and then we introduced the players," he says. "The players went through some plays and explained some things. Then we took the opportunity to talk about our expectations—how we want our fans to come and support us, but to do it with class. It worked well and we’re planning to do it again."

Didrickson has found that pre-game meetings between fans and coaches prompt positive behavior. "Have a coach go up into the stands 45 minutes before a game and give the fans a little pep talk and a scouting report on the opposing team," he advises. "Include a quick message about keeping things positive. I’ve seen that cut way down on the negative cheering and berating of the other team."

Building relationships has another advantage: If fan misbehavior does occur, the problem can be remedied much more quickly and easily. "If fans know you, it’s a lot easier to address them if they go out of bounds," Didrickson says. "When you walk over and say, ‘Let’s not do that,’ they don’t just think you’re being a stodgy old-timer. They think, ‘We know him, and he’s a pretty good guy with the team’s best interest at heart.’

"It’s a lot like coaching your players," he adds. "You build a rapport and a relationship with them, and then when you do have to correct them, they already trust you."

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 Kidera 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 going to follow."

Glenn Hofmann, Assistant Athletic Director for Communications and Marketing at Lehigh, has seen this happen at his school, too. "Some students who don’t usually attend came to one of our basketball games and started an inappropriate chant," he says. "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."

Defining Boundaries
But how do you get students to understand what is appropriate and what is not? Many schools have found success by openly discussing the question with their student fans. "At Illinois, 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," says Athletic Director Ron Guenther. "Our discussions were a give and take, and we made it clear that they would have a say in determining policies."

At Lehigh, members of the student-athlete advisory council talked with student fans. "We spent a lot of time listening to what students had to say," says Hofmann. "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."

The approach has succeeded at the high school level as well. In the Sioux Falls, S.D., school district, spectator sportsmanship became a concern after several minor incidents last fall. Administrators initially just cracked down on bad behavior. "Then kids who had been really enthusiastic about coming to games and supporting our teams stopped coming," says Jim Trett, Head Boys’ Coach at Washington High School. Washington responded by instituting a sportsmanship committee made up of students. Trett serves on the committee with them.

"We asked the students to work with us to define good fan behavior in a way that kept their fun intact but kept sportsmanship as the top priority," he says. "We spelled out some very clear ground rules—no obscenity, no overly personal chants. But we struck the balance in favor of trying to let them do the things they want to do as long as they are not inappropriate."

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.

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 side, 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."

Back at the Game
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," says Greg Schulze, Assistant Athletic Director for Events and Facilities at Lehigh. "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."

Portions of this article appeared in our sister publication, Athletic Management.

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 following a game, sometimes with disastrous consequences. However, attempting to deter the behavior can cause risks of its own, which leads to a quandary: Should programs block all storming, or try to allow a safe version of it?

"Our policy says no one is allowed 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. "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. "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," says Greg Schulze, Assistant Athletic Director for Events and Facilities at Lehigh.

In these instances, game management officials need a plan in place to control the crowd and coaches need a plan for protecting their players. Both need to be worked out ahead of time and clearly communicated to all involved.

"As administrators, we pay close attention at the end of a game, and if we see that fans are going to storm the court, we immediately get as many security people as possible in front of the them," Schulze says. "They make eye contact with as many spectators as possible and let them know what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t. They 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.’ They keep repeating the message, and that approach has worked well for us."

Coaches need a similar plan for ensuring their players’ safety. Jim Haney, Executive Director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, believes coaches and officials need to agree beforehand on a "safe zone" on the sidelines that will be cordoned off by security personnel. Players and officials should be instructed to go there immediately when the buzzer sounds.

"Caution your players to be careful in the process of getting out of the mayhem and to the safe area," Haney advises. "Tell them to move quickly, but under control. Tell them not to respond if fans make negative comments to them, and if someone attacks them physically, tell them to defend themselves without retaliating in any way.

"Having a safe zone provides a place where players can go to shake hands with the visiting team and engage in the ceremony that is part of the end of a big game," he adds. "It’s realistic, because you’re not trying to protect the whole court, but you’re protecting one part of it."

A strategically called time-out can be used to remind players of what to do, according to Mike Daley, Head Men’s Coach at Nazareth College. "After we know the game is in hand, if it’s been a big game, I may call a time-out to tell my players, ‘As soon as the game ends, get to your bench and just stay there.’ I tell them that I’ve seen people get hurt in court-storming situations and I don’t want that to happen."