By Laura Ulrich
No high school contest would be the same without an enthusiastic student cheering section. Passionate, creative teenagers putting everything they’ve got into backing their school’s team on a Friday night are central to the high school sports experience. But for administrators, that unbridled enthusiasm often comes with a side of worries. This fall, two trends in high school fan behavior have been making headlines: alcohol and body paint.
Tailgating and underage drinking have always been a concern at contests, but they appear to be a growing problem. The use of body paint by young fans—sometimes in lieu of clothing—is also making headlines. Both issues have administrators searching for solutions that will keep games safe without dampening their fans’ zeal.
In Charleston, West Virginia, concern over underage drinking at football games has two high schools implementing new prevention efforts. George Washington High School and South Charleston High School, part of the Kanawha County School District, both play their home games at the University of Charleston’s Laidley Field, where Field Manager Lou Ann Lanham says incidents of teenaged fans being caught with alcohol are increasing.
For some students, the decision to drink at games comes from a desire to party like college fans.
"A lot of this has started with college kids having tailgates and high school kids trying to be like them,” Michael Kawash, the student body president at George Washington High School, told the Charleston Daily Mail.
In response, administrators at George Washington are trying to turn peer pressure from a negative into a positive by putting the student council in charge of fixing the problem. This fall, the council generated a new set of stricter policies for fans that won the school board’s approval. Under the new protocol, all bags are checked at the gate and anyone caught with alcohol is banned from home games for the rest of the school year.
At neighboring South Charleston High School, administrators are empowering students to police their peers in an effort to cut down on underage drinking. At that school, a student fan group called “Orange Nation” has been created, with membership by application only. Applicants’ GPAs and references are checked, and those who are chosen sign a contract agreeing not to come to games under the influence. They dress in orange T-shirts and sit in the student section at home games, where they monitor their fellow fans for alcohol use and other negative behavior.
“We’re trying to set it up where the people who will be a positive example … will join the group,” Jacob Ruddel, the student body president, said.
Since underage drinking often tends to occur when students head to their cars during games, several districts are experimenting with policies that prohibit fans from re-entering games once they have left. While it may lessen student drinking, administrators are finding that enforcement of the policy presents its own headaches, with adult fans complaining as much as teens about not being able to return to their vehicles during games.
At Washington County School District in Maryland, where a new no-entry policy is in place this year, Supervisor of Arts, Health, Physical Education, and Athletics Ed Masood is taking some heat for the decision. But he believes the policy is worth weathering some complaints, since it eliminates the temptation and opportunity for kids to drink.
High school administrators are also making new rules and better enforcing old ones when it comes to fans wearing body paint. In North Carolina, one conference has banned body paint altogether. The decision came after some fans incorporated inappropriate language and symbols into their body paint, causing safety concerns about conflicts between rival fans.
At Sandusky High School in Ohio, a longstanding rule against body paint is suddenly causing new controversy, after administrators sanctioned a group of female students who showed up to a game wearing sports bras and body paint. When the district enforced its no-body-paint rules, Principal Dan Poggiali received a slew of complaints about the policy, and taxpayers are even threatening to vote no on the school budget over the issue. The district is standing fast, however, and keeping the ban in place.
For other schools, an outright ban goes too far, and they’re focusing their efforts on making sure fans who do wear body paint also wear appropriate clothing—not substituting the paint for shirts, for example—and making sure the paint expresses appropriate messages. That’s the policy at River Hill High School in Clarksville, Md., where Principal William Ryan last month told student fans, “You can paint your body, hair, and toenails if you want, but you have to be fully clothed.”
Collaborative efforts or crackdowns, peer pressure or punishments—for administrators, striking a balance that promotes fan involvement yet keeps contests safe and positive will continue to be a perennial challenge, right up there with balancing the budget.
An in-depth look at the topic of fan behavior, including advice from veteran administrators who have coped with fan problems in positive ways, can be found in a recent Athletic Management feature article, “Rules for Rowdiness.”
Laura Ulrich is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.