Sidelining Unsportsmanlike Behavior

By Edwin C. Darden

It is May 2010 in Nebraska, and action on the lush green soccer field is inspiring giddy fan excitement in the closing moments of a state boys soccer championship game. The contest ends calmly with Lincoln East High School defeating its rival Omaha South.

And then it happens.

Victorious Lincoln East fans flood the field to celebrate, and some begin flinging skyward dozens of homemade replicas of “green cards” --  the official identification for immigrants who have earned permanent resident status in the United States. Omaha South’s team, as it turns out, contains a significant number of Latino players.

At high school sports events nationwide, enthusiastic fans are known to use edgy tactics to distract opponents and, they hope, to help the home team win.

For example, a basketball spectator coughs loudly when the opposing team’s player is shooting a free throw. Football crowds chant an opposing player’s name repeatedly --  and sarcastically. Baseball fans might yell “Swing!” just as the pitch arrives.

These pranks are annoying but harmless, but fan behavior (as proven in Nebraska) can get unruly and downright ugly. Whether the perpetrators are students, parents, or visitors, it pays for school boards to be clear about the behavior expected at sporting events, how the district will respond when respectability is abandoned, and the range of consequences. A policy is the right move.

The legal authority for controlling sports “fanatics” is not as straightforward as one might hope. There are three primary areas to consider: speech, clothing, and behavior. Put another way, we will look at what fans say, what they wear, and how they act. Further complicating matters is the difference between punishments for wayward students versus wayward adults. Also, you are responsible for protecting the dignity of the referees and umpires you hire to officiate. 

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