The repercussions of poor sportsmanship — whether it's on the part of coaches, athletes or fans — are taking their toll on high school sports. High school associations across the country started the academic year with referee shortages due to — among other factors — personal safety concerns.
"We have been challenged to fights. People come off of the stands and want to hurt us, just because my interpretation of the rule isn't their interpretation of the rule or whatever," Dave Pixton of the Northwest New Mexico Officials Association told KOB4 in September. Programs across the country have had to reschedule or even cancel games when they're unable to line up officials.
It's not just football that's suffering. "It's probably worse in basketball," Ken Melton, supervisor of the North Central Basketball Officials Association in Tennessee, told The Tennessean in September. "In basketball, the fans are right there on you. In football, you can hardly hear them. In basketball, you hear them, and basketball fans have gotten really belligerent."
Unruly fans also pose a security issue for volunteers staffing athletic events, with fights breaking out between opposing crowds and among players or even coaches. The situation has sparked schools, districts, conferences and state associations to adopt codes of conduct and sportsmanship initiatives that take aim at bad behavior.
One organization is attempting to take the issue even further. "We believe high schools can do a better job communicating their expectations to attend their games," says Jay Hammes, president and founder of Safe Sport Zone, which offers safety training and modeling for athletics administrators. "We also believe that our fan behavior would improve if there was a consistent set of rules for both home and away fans."
Safe Sport Zone, in association with the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association and American Family Insurance, developed a task force comprised of experienced athletics administrators and drafted a universal spectator code of conduct. "We plan to provide banners for schools to display at the entrances of their venues," Hammes says. "Announcements over the public address system regarding fan expectations can only go so far."
The initiative is being tested at schools across the country during the 2016-17 fall and winter sports seasons. The campaign uses banners and signage to reinforce expectations for fans, as well as highlight security measures intended to deter delinquent behavior.
Aside from the visual elements, Hammes says there are some commonsense measures that should be in place at all athletic events to minimize the potential for fan altercations. "Seating sections should be designated for home and away fans, as well as students and adults," he says. "The courts have consistently ruled that schools must provide a reasonable standard of care. Separating crowds would be considered a reasonable standard of care if your school were to experience an incident."
Hammes also recommends having all fans enter through one main entrance but leave through separate exits, which not only eases traffic flow at the end of the event but reduces interactions between opposing fans. Surveillance is also an essential safeguard, providing evidence in the event that an incident does occur — and acting as a reminder to fans that they're being watched.
Following the completion of the fall and winter sports seasons, Safe Sport Zone and its partners will evaluate the success of the program and press forward from there, says Hammes. "By March 2017, we will know the durability and effectiveness of the code of conduct banners, and then determine if we will move forward with national distribution and implementation."
This article originally appeared in the November | December 2016 issue of Athletic Business with the title "spectator behavior: A national solution to a national problem." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.