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Fight Club

The Ron Artest incident spawned copycat behavior and policy change at schools nationwide.

In the days and weeks following the worst brawl in National Basketball Association history, which saddled Indiana Pacer Ron Artest with an unprecedented 73-game suspension after attacking Detroit Pistons fans at The Palace of Auburn Hills, pundits stressed the need for Americans to get a grip -- to remember that sporting events are games, not licenses to abandon all sense of decent behavior. All told, nine Pistons and Pacers received suspensions for their role in the Nov. 19 fracas, and several fans involved were treated for injuries; some also face criminal charges.

Sports Illustrated published a heartbreaking photo of a young fan who witnessed the 10-minute melee at the Palace with tears in his eyes, hugging a consoling adult. "The kid must be wondering where all the fun went," writer Jack McCallum noted in his accompanying story.

In the wake of the Detroit debacle, an alarming spate of fights broke out at prep basketball games, proving that fun can be fleeting at the high school level, as well. Contests in at least nine states this season were marred by brawls on the court, in the stands or outside the gymnasium.

Among the most serious: • Nate Minnoy of Hales Franciscan High School in Chicago was suspended for two games and placed on probation for the rest of the season by the Illinois High School Association after he charged into the stands at a Dec. 29 game against Bloom High to confront a heckler. Play was stopped as police hauled away both player and fan.

• Dozens of adults and students were involved in a post-game fight at North Babylon (N.Y.) High School on Jan. 11. The melee erupted in the hallway outside of the gymnasium after visiting Bay Shore High School beat North Babylon in overtime. Several injuries were reported. A North Babylon freshman girl claimed a female adult repeatedly struck her in the head with a water bottle, and a North Babylon senior said an adult punched him in the face.

• A Dec. 14 game between Providence and Webster County high schools in Dixon, Ky., was halted with less than three minutes to play when a bench-clearing brawl broke out, resulting in the Kentucky High School Athletic Association's suspension of seven players total from both teams, who sat out a combined 31 games. With fans pouring onto the court, Webster County coach Matt Bell tried to intervene and was knocked unconscious. Because of the skirmish, Providence school officials originally intended to allow only teams, coaches, referees and staff members to attend a January rematch, but eventually decided to let fans attend, as well.

• Each player on the girls' basketball teams at Kenmore and Firestone high schools in Akron, Ohio, received a two-game suspension from the school district after a Dec. 2 on-court fight involving several players and fans. The incident began when two players exchanged elbows and then began throwing punches, forcing referees to call the game in the third quarter. Additionally, one girl was kicked off Kenmore's team for the season, and three other players received additional suspensions beyond the initial two games. One day later, at a boys' basketball game in Tontogany, Ohio, between Otsego and Woodmore high schools, Otsego's Jordan Murphy came to blows with a 17-year-old Woodmore fan who reportedly was taunting Otsego's players. Three members of Otsego's team were ejected and suspended for five games by the Ohio High School Athletic Association, while the fan and the student-athlete who punched him were charged with disorderly conduct.

In the wake of the Otsego fight, the OHSAA late last year adopted penalties for student-athletes who enter a spectator area and participate in any type of verbal or physical unsportsmanlike conduct during a game. Minimum disciplinary actions include banning the player from athletic participation for the remainder of the school year and placing him or her on immediate probation, pending an investigation. The state's action appears to be the first of its kind in the country.

"It seems strange that you have to make a rule like that, doesn't it?" asks Daniel Wann, a professor of psychology at Murray State University whose area of expertise is aggression in sports. "But what happens in so many high schools isn't that different from what happens in the pros. The fans heckle the players. To me, it's beyond what I can even imagine -- that someone would sit in the stands and yell at a 17-year-old student-athlete. And the players are taught to take it. The reality is that they shouldn't have to take it; they shouldn't have to put up with that abuse. So I imagine that these high school kids said, 'Well, look, if the pros can do something about it, I can, too.' That's the mentality. The fans in Detroit pushed those players beyond their breaking point. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not condoning what the players did. I'm just explaining their actions. They had simply had enough, and so they took matters into their own hands. High school athletes are in the same situation."

While many state associations have strong sportsmanship programs in place, it was unclear at the time of this writing whether the National Federation of State High School Associations' Citizenship Committee would take up the issue of recent player-fan confrontations. But committee chairman William Gaine Jr. says he will take an "active and aggressive" stance against such behavior.

"Any policy we have is meaningless unless it's backed up with educational programming," says Gaine, who also is deputy director of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association. "Part of the curriculum of interscholastic sports is teaching sportsmanship and laying down expectations, standards and consequences for behavior. This isn't just rhetoric. In Massachusetts, we inundate our membership constantly with the idea that sportsmanship is the priority. That is what interscholastic athletics is all about."

It's most definitely not about misbehaving fans, which Wann contends was the common factor at the Palace of Auburn Hills and in Illinois, New York, Kentucky and Ohio gymnasiums this hoops season. "The cause of the whole thing is the abusive and violent behavior of spectators," he says. "If the spectators don't yell at the players, the players don't go into the stands. You can suspend a player, but a fan can keep screaming whatever he wants?"

Wann suggests schools take another look at their behavior policies for both student-athletes and spectators. "Your gymnasium is in your high school, and you should expect classroom-like behavior," he says. "People can't scream obscenities in the classroom. Tell fans that they can cheer all they want, but when they cross that line from enthusiastic to abusive, you need to treat it as if it were a classroom incident and suspend them, so to speak, from coming to one or more games."

In addition to making such an announcement prior to each competition, athletic administrators need to promote the policy changes via booster clubs, pep rallies, community events, team and parent meetings, printed athletic programs, facility signage, newspaper articles, flyers and other means. "If you don't give the policy teeth -- if you don't truly enforce it -- it will never, ever work," Wann says. "If people know there's a policy in place, hopefully that policy will serve as a deterrent. Most people don't set out to do this kind of stuff. They just get wrapped up in the moment, and sometimes it escalates so far that they can't stop themselves. That's what you're trying to avoid."

A good example of a policy change can be found in the Yankton (S.D.) School District, which in December formally asked parents and other fans from the community to follow the same behavior standards as its students and staff at all sporting events. The district's revised sportsmanship policy now specifically requests spectators to refrain from willful physical injury to others, harassment or coercion of others, willful damage to property or disruption of the activity and use of profanity and abusive language. Even excessive face or body painting is prohibited. Failure to comply with district rules could result in removal from the game and possible police involvement.

"What we have found difficult to control is adult behavior, especially young adults just out of high school or college, and parents," Bob Winter, activities director for the district, told the Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan. "The purpose of fans is to support their school, not to intimidate or ridicule the other team."

Regardless of what preventive measures individual schools take, it's nearly impossible to completely guard against a violent confrontation between fans and players. "If you're so mad that you're going to charge into the stands and go after somebody, you're not thinking of the consequences of your actions," Wann says. "There could be hot coals between you and that person. You'll go through the coals if your level of anger is that high."

But now that the initial shock of the Pacers-Pistons run-in with fans has faded, Wann predicts that a renewed emphasis on sportsmanship and prevention can go a long way toward bringing back the fun of high school sports. "People sometimes say that there are positive consequences to conflict and that they can lead to a better future," he says. "Hopefully, schools will put policies in place and retake control of the stands."

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