Every sports team wants its fans to be fanatical.
But are we at a tipping point, in light of last week’s altercation between Oklahoma State basketball star Marcus Smart and a Texas Tech fan?
Most coaches and fans agree that college basketball spectators aren’t all that different than they were 30 years ago, when the popularity of NCAA basketball was exploding.
Pervasive social media with the rise of Facebook and Twitter, however, is something that has changed the fan-player relationship in some detrimental ways, many believe, including Big 12 coaches and fans.
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Nowadays, fans can easily look up personal information of an opposing player and taunt him or her with it during a game. Many times it’s harmless and the student-athlete is too far away to hear the barb. But not always, as was the case in Lubbock.
“The line should be drawn when it gets personal,” TCU student Andrew Grambley said. “When you see some kids try to be funny and get personal information off the Internet like their sister’s name and try to use it during a game, it’s funny from an outsider’s perspective, but there’s a really thin line when a player actually hears it.”
It’s one thing for fellow students to give opposing student-athletes a hard time in the name of school pride and in the spirit of youth. But for many, it’s another story when it’s grown adults, as was the case with Jeff Orr, the Texas Tech super fan from Waco, who admitted to calling Smart “a piece of crap” with Smart just a few feet away.
Smart shoved Orr and was suspended three games by the Big 12. Both apologized, and Orr has agreed not to attend Red Raiders games the rest of the season.
The NCAA manual prohibits fans from unsportsmanlike conduct, which includes the use profanity or “language that is abusive, vulgar or obscene.”
Longtime coach Bob Huggins, 60, of West Virginia, who has had his share of fan confrontations during his nearly 40-year coaching career, said some fan comments still baffle him.
“It’s kind of amazed me. People pay whatever it is, $20 for a ticket, and they think that entitles them to say things,” he said. “They certainly wouldn’t walk down the street and yell those things at somebody. They wouldn’t walk into somebody’s workplace and yell those kinds of things. So it’s amazing that buying a ticket entitles people to say some of the ignorant things that they say.”
But Huggins and the rest of his Big 12 colleagues don’t think much has changed.
“Some of the most clever things were things that were done back when I played in the early ’80s,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, who played at Oklahoma State. “Fun things and some of the most crude things happened back then, too. I don’t know if there’s been much change at all in that regard.”
In November, student members of a longtime spirit group at Missouri basketball games called The Antlers were kicked out of games for violating the school’s core values, Missouri athletic director Mike Alden said. “We just want to make sure that folks are representing the institution with class.”
One of the chants the school objected to was “Raise your hand if you thought Hurricane Katrina was a good thing?” during a game against Southeastern Louisiana.
TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte said he’s often talked to Horned Frogs fans about objectionable heckling. It’s fine, he said, if fans rip the officials or umpires, or show good-natured passion for their own team.
“That’s part of the game,” Del Conte said. “As long as it’s not personal and insulting. What’s not part of the game is derogatory comments to our students. We have to remember they’re out there performing, playing their hearts out.”
Public service announcements are made before every Big 12 athletics event, although most fans usually aren’t in their seat early enough to hear it or aren’t paying attention.
“You can only educate to a certain point,” Del Conte said. “You provide everyone with the principles of behavior but they govern themselves. We have what we feel like is proper decorum and etiquette for our venues, but if you don’t respond to those values you’ll be removed.”
One longtime TCU booster, Roy Topham, who has been attending Frogs games since graduating in 1972, said he thinks TCU fans are actually more respectful than they were 40 years ago. He said he’s never heard anything cringe-worthy at Daniel-Meyer Coliseum.
“No, never, and we’re the loudest section here,” Topham said of his front row section near the northeast corner of the court. “I’ve laughed pretty hard [at some heckled comments]. I don’t like to see [opposing] players complain about calls. When they’re whining to the ref I’m on them.”
But for Topham and most other fans at DMC, they’re a good 10 yards from the action and far enough away where it could be difficult for a player to discern what was said and from whom.
That wasn’t the case in Lubbock, where the fan had a floor seat right behind the basket.
“That’s one of the most frustrating things to me is seeing somebody who is older badgering these college athletes,” said Grambley, 22. “These are kids who were in high school a year or two ago, if not six months. Some people just take it way too seriously. It is a game and these are kids. How would these older people [heckling] like it if it was their child? I don’t think anyone deserves that.”
Of course, anyone who has attended a high school sporting event knows how spirited and sometimes ugly the “cheering” can get.
TCU’s renovation plans call for fan seating to be flush with the court where the press table now sits. It will not only give fans the best view in the house, but will get them to within whisper distance of the player’s ears.
“I think it’s important to be passionate,” said 10-year season ticket holder Joe Swearingen, 61. “We talk about having a home-court advantage and if you’re not noisy and you don’t get on the officials and root for your team then you’re not doing your part. On the other hand, there’s a line and you can’t go over that.”
Swearingen thinks we have a coarser society today than we did 30 or 40 years ago and that fandom is just a reflection of that change.
“You could be at a meeting, or social function or in a restaurant. Somebody bumps into you and the next thing you know you have something going on. That didn’t use to happen as much,” he said. “Society is on the wrong path.”
Swearingen, Topham and Grambley all agreed that with good common sense, most people know where the line is.
“There are people at every school across the nation that just take it too far,” Grambley said. “The unfortunate fact is that those fans are the ones that get seen and portray an image for a whole school.”