My previous post in my series on the “Coach as Teacher” was titled “There is Power in Your Words.” While today’s post is not in the realm of “Coach as Teacher,” it does fit into the concept of the Power of our Words, so it is fitting to have it be the post following the one with that title. It is a little bit of a rant about something I have been concerned with for some time, and I only see getting worse. It was written a few months ago when two things happening simultaneously held our country’s collective interest – our presidential primary elections and the end of basketball seasons around the country. You might be asking, “What could the presidential primaries and the end of basketball seasons have in common?” Glad you asked. Let me explain.
Now, please understand – this is not going to be a political post. While I have my opinions on the candidates, I am not going to go into those here. What I am going to talk about, though, is the climate, the atmosphere, and the discourse that we have coming from the primaries. And I think you will see a correlation between them and fan behavior at games.
I never imagined that I would see people running for the office of President of the United States of America resort to the kind of name-calling and bullying that we have seen them sink to in this race. I have seen and heard supposedly adult men attack one another by picking on the other man’s height, the size of fingers (as well as the subsequent allusion that led to another part of the male anatomy), poor spelling, and getting thirsty while giving a speech. I have heard men tell each other to “Shut up!” I have heard, “Get him the hell outta’ here!” and “If you need to rough him up a bit, I’ll pay the bills.” Seriously? This is how our supposed leaders speak in public to other people?!
We have watched the climate at some of the rallies devolve into supporters/fans of opposing sides yelling at one another, pushing, shoving, and punching each other. We have seen candidates and supporters alike pointing fingers of blame all around them, but nobody seems to want to point the finger in the mirror and say to himself or herself, “You’re better than that. You need to own it and fix it right now.” There is no accountability for this abhorrent behavior – only finger-pointing and name-calling. It is a scary political climate that we have crossed into.
We have also crossed into a similar climate with the fans at basketball games. Of course, this could go for all sports, but the basketball seasons are coming to or have already come to a close, so it is most prevalent right now. Over the final few weekends of the high school basketball season here in Montana, I watched a few games at a Divisional Tournament and a State Tournament. I also watched a lot of college conference tournaments on TV, and the “Big Dance” of March Madness. Madness is a perfect term for what has been created in all of these venues.
Listen to the student sections at these games. High school kids take their cues from college kids. That is nothing new, and it is not exclusive to sports fans. However, sports fans are the focus here. While I love the “Cameron Crazies” of Duke University, they are 18-22 year-old college students cheering for and against other 18-22 year-old college students. While that in and of itself doesn’t make it okay for them to cross the line and yell some of the things they do, at least the people they are yelling at are adults (for the most part). Also, they do have some very creative, non-threatening chants that are clever and funny.
Hearing “Airball” and “You got swatted” and “You can’t do that” are not the worst things that those players are going to have to deal with during the course of their involvement in competitive athletics. Of course, those also aren’t the worst things that get yelled at them. Far worse chants directed at specific players about their families, GPA’s, and questionable things they have done occur all too often. Also, it is the tone and tenor of the variety of chants that is problematic. It is all about demeaning, belittling, embarrassing, and hurting the “other guy.”
In the athletic world, we have worked really hard over the last 10-20 years to get coaches to stop treating their players in demeaning, embarrassing ways. We need to be doing the same with our fans.
However, the bigger problem is that high school student sections quite often take their cues from the college student sections. So we start to hear the same kinds of chants with the same kind of tone and tenor being directed out at the players. Only in this venue, they are yelling out at 14-18 year-olds. These are children that they are yelling at.
I know that 17-18 year-olds are looked at as young adults. But they are still in a much more fragile and tenuous time of their lives than the college kids, and many of the high school players aren’t even 17 yet. Most high school kids don’t have a strong sense of self-confidence. They struggle with their self-image and sense of worth. They critique every aspect of their being. Being yelled at the way they are yelled at by fans can be extremely unnerving.
There are also other extremely impressionable young people at these games. Consider how many middle school and elementary school kids are sitting there listening to what is being yelled from student sections. Just like those kids watch the players and take their cues from them to figure out what it means to be a high school athlete, they are also doing the same thing watching the fans. They are learning that the kind of behavior and chants being yelled at the players is appropriate, and they begin to join in and do the same.
Now consider those same kids watching snippets of the debates and rallies of the presidential candidates. Are they really seeing anything that is all that different from what they are seeing in the basketball stands? Aren’t the way our presidential candidates – people who want to LEAD our country – and our student sections at our games doing pretty much the same thing? Aren’t they yelling inappropriate comments and bullying people on “the other team” to try to put them down and beat them? Where has this come from? How has this become acceptable? Most importantly, isn’t it time we do something about it?
It is time for us to take back our bleachers. It is time to hold our fans accountable for their actions and let them know they are going too far.
As a former athletic director, I know it’s not fun to confront an entire student section. However, confront them we must when they cross the line. But we have to establish what the line is first. Then we have to tell them what that line is. We have to give them the expectation of what it means to be a fan.
I know that some state athletic associations have come under fire and taken some heat for wanting to legislate fan behavior too much. People cried “Foul” when some states wanted to outlaw the “Airball” chant and others like them. The problem with so many of the chants, though, is that they are directed at someone on the opposing side as opposed to for someone on our side. This starts with one student section yelling at one team. Then the other student section yells back at the other team. As is often the case, though, (especially with kids) they have to take it up a notch. “Airball” becomes “You got swatted” or “You can’t do that.” That receives a return chant we might hear when a team is shooting a free throw, “Bounce, Bounce, Bounce, You Suck!” They have now leaped over a line of appropriateness.
Consider this scenario that played out in one of the final weeks of the season in Massachusetts. Catholic Memorial HS outside of Boston banned its students from attending the state tournament semi-final game after their student section chanted “You killed Jesus!” in the previous game against Newton North HS, a predominantly Jewish school. Their chant was in response to Newton North’s chant of “Where are your girls?” and “Sausagefest” towards Catholic Memorial, an all-boys’ school.
This problem is happening everywhere. An administrator at a school here in Montana had to send out an email to the entire school district’s parents after the Divisional Championship game warning everyone that they would forfeit their state tournament games if they had any type of behavior from the fans (and players) similar to what had happened during their Divisional Championship game. I’m sure everyone who reads this post could talk about some situation that they heard about or witnessed that would fall into the same category as these.
So when state associations say they want to limit what gets yelled and how it gets yelled, it is not in the spirit of not wanting kids and fans to have fun, be spirited, and enjoy the game experience. It is because all too often, the fun and spirit and experience devolves into something ugly, divisive, and sometimes violent. Just like our presidential primaries have devolved.
So how do we fix it?
That is not an easy answer. But one answer is that since these things seem to trickle down, let’s start at the top. How about demanding that our leaders (presidential candidates, for instance), coaches, teachers, administrators, and parents model proper behavior? We ask teachers, coaches, and administrators to do this all the time. We need to hold them accountable when they don’t. When these people handle themselves the right way, then it is easier for them to demand the same from others.
As I said earlier, we also need to establish expectations. No, we don’t have to completely curtail all of the chants that happen at games. But we need to give students (and adults) guidelines on what is and is not acceptable to yell. We must say, “Here is the line that you cannot cross.” Then when someone crosses it, we must have the strength to confront the behavior and say, “That is unacceptable. No more of that or you will be removed.” Again, I know that is not always easy, but it must be done.
Administrators can work with student councils, captains’ councils, leadership classes, and teams to enlist them to help police their own student sections. When fellow students turn to others and say, “Hey, we don’t say that here. We’re better than that,” it goes a lot further than when administrators reprimand and punish kids. As with so many things, education is the key.
We must all work together to fix this problem NOW! It isn’t going to get better on its own. It is going to take a concerted effort on the part of a lot of different people in a lot of different circles in a lot of different communities to fix this. But fix it we must, or else consider where we will be in another 5-10 years. Is anyone looking forward to the presidential primaries for 2020?!
** I had intended to talk about both student-fan behavior and adult-fan behavior in this post, as well as treatment of officials. However, this is by far the longest post (1900+ words) I have written in the eight months that I have been writing these posts. So stay tuned – I will be addressing adult fan behavior & treatment of officials in the future.
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