by Kenny Berkowitz
In Alabama, two schools are placed on restrictive probation. New laws in Oregon and Minnesota increase the penalty for assaulting sports officials. And a high school in Needham, Mass., has taken huge steps to stem negative behavior among its hockey fans.
With 6:23 remaining in an Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) boys’ basketball game between George Washington Carver High School and Valley High School last month, one player fouled another. The scuffle that followed grew into an all-out melee, and within seconds, both benches emptied.
But it wasn’t just players who were fighting. Spectators streamed onto the court to join the fracas, and while a handful of security personnel attempted to keep order, fans roamed the stands ready for battle. Video of the game-ending brawl, which was broadcast on CNN, shows an arena completely out of control.
In the aftermath, the AHSAA placed both schools on restrictive probation, dropped each from tournament play, and levied fines of $6,700 on Valley and $3,800 on Carver. After taking part in an AHSAA sportsmanship program, the schools have reduced their fines by about one-third, but bouncing back from nationwide negative exposure is a long process.
“We have all been through a very tough time and have given the world an incorrect opinion of educational-based athletics in the state of Alabama,” wrote AHSAA Executive Director Steve Savarese in a letter to each school's principal. “We have an opportunity to make a difference in this same world by demonstrating we can learn from this unfortunate situation.”
Under the terms of the probation, Carver and Valley have been ordered to submit detailed action plans to the AHSAA, and both teams need to perform community service before being considered for postseason play next season. Earlier this month, Carver began its road to recovery, sending its basketball team to read at a nearby elementary school. But when administrators called a community meeting to move past the brawl’s backlash, only 25 people showed up.
“It’s very disheartening to know parents aren’t here,” moderator and alum Karen Jones told the Montgomery Advertiser. “It should be a full house.”
Alabama is not alone in dealing with fans who cross the line. Around the country, more than 20 state legislatures have increased the penalty for assaulting sports officials. Oregon now allows officials to sue for their injuries. Minnesota permits the state high school athletic association to ban an attacker from games for one year. And in Missouri earlier this month, Rep. Steve Hodges, who has officiated high school football games for 40 years, co-sponsored a bill to create a new category of crime for attacking a referee.
“I don’t think anyone should be allowed to physically contact a sports official,” Hodges told the Associated Press.The bill, which is primarily targeted at youth and prep leagues, proposes increasing the penalty from a $300 fine to $1,000 or one year in jail.
As Section 9 Sportsmanship Chairman, Glen Maisch, Athletic Director at Kingston (N.Y.) High School, is leading the charge against fan misbehavior in his area.
“We need to bring sportsmanship to the forefront more and more,” Maisch told the Hudson Valley’s Times Herald-Record. “There are a lot of things you can do.”
In Kingston, a district-wide “Enjoy the Game” program reinforces the importance of fan behavior. On top of that, Maisch has created contracts for fans to sign at the beginning of the year, pledging to behave themselves at sporting events. Breaking the contract costs students their pep club shirt, and adult chaperons patrol the stands during games, issuing yellow cards as a warning to misbehaving spectators.
In Massachusetts, the problem of fan misbehavior at Needham High School caught the attention of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA). Last spring, the MIAA warned Needham Principal Paul Richards that the school's boys' ice hockey team could be sanctioned if it was unable to control its fans. In response, the school began paying faculty members to attend home and away contests for boys’ basketball and ice hockey. This season, every home game has had between five and 10 monitors in the stands, plus a supervisor and a police officer to handle emergencies.
Under the new policies, students can be removed from the arena after a single offense and suspended from games for one week after a second offense. Profanity, body paint, and negative cheering are prohibited, and MIAA language on sportsmanship was added to the Needham student handbook. Richards sent an e-mail to parents detailing his expectations for fan behavior, and during games, staff members distribute “How to Cheer on the Rockets” cards to fans explaining what is and isn’t appropriate.
“Leading up to this point, we have addressed individual behavior with the students involved,” wrote Richards in a letter explaining his decision to parents. “In this case, however, there must be a consequence for the group as a whole. The ramifications for failing to improve our fan culture are significant.”
The problems haven’t entirely gone away. At a home hockey game in January, fans couldn’t be stopped from chanting “Wellesley, Wellesley, Wellesley, you suck!” and the crowd jeered at MIAA reps who were taking notes about fan behavior, shouting “put your clipboards away!”
“I know they’ve been working pretty hard on student behavior at sporting events,” MIAA spokesman Paul Wetzel told the Needham Times, saying that Needham was “very close” to being sanctioned. “But they seem to take two steps forward and one step back.”
The following week, Richards barred Needham student fans from attending an away game in Framingham, which may have done the trick. At the next game, fans were on their best behavior, cheering “Go, Needham!” instead of directing their usual chants of “Sieve!” at the Framingham goalie.
After qualifying for the state tournament, Needham was given the chance to defend its title. Seeded second, Needham fell one game short of the state tournament’s Final Four, finishing the season with a 19-5-1 record. But they won the bigger battle: an MIAA report card that gave the school high marks for improving fan behavior.
Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management. He can be reached at kb@MomentumMedia.com.