It’s tolerated, oftentimes even encouraged, at college and professional basketball games – obnoxious, taunting fan behavior intended to distract the opponent, which is certain to trickle down to the high school level because of the amount of exposure it receives. In fact, there seems to be no lack of boorish behavior by fans at the high school level.
Recent survey information has linked obnoxious fan behavior to the recruitment and retention of sports officials. A survey by the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) indicated that 76 percent of the respondents listed poor sportsmanship by parents as the single biggest reason why they elected to stop officiating high school contests.
In an effort to overcome the influence of crowd behavior at college and professional games and focus on sportsmanship, many state associations and high schools have implemented programs to address these issues. While athletic directors are responsible for school-wide sportsmanship programs, several have implemented specific plans to improve crowd behavior at high school basketball games.
Bob Madison, activities director at Mounds View (Minnesota) High School, said he requires his students to go through “super fan” training in order to be leaders of the Mounds View Mustang “senior stable.” Each school in the conference sends 10 to 12 kids to the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) training in the fall, which provides exercises in different strategies and skills for implementing change.
“They’re all there together, they work on cheers together, they try to break down stereotypes of each other’s schools,” Madison said. “We tell stories about how games have been impacted by both positive and negative behavior, and then we create a list of behaviors, kind of the do’s and don’ts that take place during the games.”
The best thing, Madison said, is that the students get to know each other and become friendly.
“It’s kind of broken down walls. These kids now know each other and it’s harder for them to go back and forth and be derogatory when they know each other,” he said. “They’re more alike than they are different. Really the only thing that’s different is the colors they’re wearing.”
Madison relies on five students during the year and meets with them regularly, whether it’s before a big game or after something doesn’t go as planned. He also said that he tries to give the student section as much recognition as the athletes.
“We have kids that enjoy their basketball experience by playing it. We also have kids that thoroughly enjoy the experience because of the environment they create and how they support their school,” Madison said. “They’re a big part of what is taking place at that game. Give them the responsibility and the students tend to rise to the occasion.”
After working in college athletics as a coach and administrator, Frank Carr, athletic director at Richmond (Indiana) High School, said he’s had the most successful fan behavior when he has gotten the athletes and coaches involved.
“[As a coach,] I didn’t realize how much of a role I needed to play in the fan behavior part,” Carr said. “I think whether you’re playing at home or on the road, how your community is represented is important in both venues. Let the coaches know how important it is to you.
“Be the type of program that people want to be a part of rather than support out of obligation. Sometimes, that’s on the coaches and it starts with them.”
Carr said he once asked his players how they could help get the word across to the fans about respecting the game, opponents and other fans at a conference tournament they were hosting. He was surprised by what happened next.
“What the captains did was write a letter that was printed in the school paper directed to the fans to say how much they loved the support,” Carr said. “They thanked them and wished they would continue through the conference tournament. Then the ‘however’ paragraph started and it was great.”
He said they printed the letter and handed it out with the program to fans as they entered the game.
“At that tournament, our fans were much more respectful and understood,” Carr said. “I think the good move was that we got the students involved and so it was talking peer to peer.”
Taking a page out of the soccer rules book, Carson (Nevada) High School instituted a “yellow card” policy more than 10 years ago, said athletic secretary Kathy Taylor.
“We post it in our gym and have the announcer read it, mostly during varsity games when we have the most people,” she said. “We want to remind them about sportsmanship.”
Taylor said the administrators at the game also have small, yellow cards on hand, which let a fan know that his or her “behavior is not appropriate for this setting.” These cards act as the first warning. If the inappropriate behavior continues, the fan is removed from the gym and may be prevented from attending future events.
“We have a lot of success with this program,” Taylor said. “You have to catch it right at the beginning. There are times where they’ll get up and start in, but once we read it, they kind of settle down.”
The yellow card idea was so successful at Carson that other schools in northern Nevada have since adopted similar policies.
Students at Kentwood (Washington) High School, where Jo Anne Daughtry is the athletics and activities director, have gotten so used to the expectations the school has of them that they even point out when parents and other fans are displaying bad behavior.
“To be honest, it’s not my students anymore. Our kids know not to boo,” Daughtry said. “When parents boo, our kids go ‘Ms. Daughtry, they’re booing!’”
“Our cheerleaders know to instantly go into ‘Kentwood Power’ and try to drown it out,” she said. “We do get help from the cheerleaders when emotions get high and the crowd decides to go sideways.”
Kentwood has gotten to this point through a mutual discussion and level of expectations that Daughtry has worked hard to implement. She said she is willing to work with the students when they want to try something new.
“For instance, kids love to chant ‘air ball’ at basketball games, so we let them do [it], but they can only do it three times and they can’t do it every time one player touches the ball,” Daughtry said. “So we don’t take all their fun away, but we try to make sure kids understand to support their team versus cheering against the other team.
“It wasn’t a popular decision, but through the years, they’ve come to understand it or tolerate it, maybe.”
Daughtry said that she tries to make sure the kids always know what is expected of them and enforces it, if necessary.
“Too often, we don’t tell them what the expectation is or we don’t have any kind of expectation,” Daughtry said. “If you say this is going to be the rule, but you don’t do anything when they do that negative stuff, they’re just going to do it again.
“You have to get them to buy in, but you have to talk to them and really help them to understand it’s a reflection on what our school is and, hopefully, they come to the same expectation.”