On Jan. 21, the three remaining undefeated teams in Division I men's basketball - Pittsburgh, Duke and Florida - all lost. At the conclusion of each game - played before upset-minded home crowds on the campuses of St. John's, Georgetown and Tennessee, respectively - fans stormed the court to revel in their team's victory.
While such postgame celebrations have become increasingly commonplace, how they are viewed varies widely. Some see the displays of unbridled joy as one more thing that makes college basketball special; others see a danger. Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, for one, saw enough of a potential safety problem unfold on the floor of Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena that he complained to the Southeastern Conference commissioner's office.
Foley's concern was based in part on a February 2004 incident during which a court-rushing fan at the University of Georgia took a swing at former Florida guard Matt Walsh. By December 2004, roughly two weeks removed from the infamous on-field brawl between the football teams from Clemson and South Carolina, the SEC had in place a policy allowing its commissioner to fine schools that fail to stop basketball and football spectators from entering the competition area. The Big Ten is the only other conference among the major six that currently employs a penalty system with fines to address such security failures.
That is not to say that other conferences take the issue lightly. Most hold weekly teleconferences on game management, and fan trespass has been a frequent discussion topic of late. "It is a concern, particularly in basketball, because it seems to be more the norm than the exception," says Big 12 Conference director of communications Rob Carolla. "It's the `SportsCenter' syndrome. Kids see it happen someplace else, so they have to do it at their place to show they're a good crowd."
The recent rush at Tennessee wasn't limited to the end-court student section, however. "I was at the scorer's table, and we had some of our season-ticket holders coming out of the stands along the sidelines, too," says Chris Fuller, assistant athletic director for sales and marketing. "We tried to do everything from a facility standpoint to prevent it, but for our basketball fans, this was the result of 15 years of pent-up frustration."
In a letter to SEC commissioner Mike Slive, Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton wrote that in the run-up to the Florida game UT athletics personnel had anticipated the school's first men's basketball sellout in years. A meeting of the athletic director, vice president for operations, event management staff and university police was called and several measures implemented. "Announcements were made as part of standard procedure regarding SEC rules and court access," Hamilton's letter states. "Ushers and additional police were stationed to prohibit students seated in the upper deck from accessing the lower seating area. University police were positioned in the aisles of the student section to prevent downward flow at the conclusion of the game. Eight to 10 officers were located in each corner of the floor to ensure the safe exit of players, coaches, staff and officials. In addition to the planned police presence, 10 additional officers were dispatched to the front of the student sections."
It wasn't enough. And certainly Tennessee, which became the third SEC school to receive the commissioner's $5,000 fine for first offenders, isn't alone when pondering what constitutes a sufficient defense against fans determined to storm the court.
"Public safety folks tend to be the experts on crowd control," says Carl Reed, associate athletic director at Stanford University, where fans flooded the Maples Pavilion floor Jan. 29 after an overtime win over No. 10 Washington. "They basically told us that short of having an army out there, you truly can't stop a mad rush of fans coming down onto the playing surface. The biggest key for us is to try to put up some resistance. But then once there's that pressure of fans flowing down, we just let them go, and we protect the coaches, players and officials."
In addition to on-court individuals, event management professionals must also consider the safety of sideline media representatives (fans tend to flock to the Dick Vitales of the broadcast world in the hopes of getting on TV); baseline-stationed photographers, cheerleaders and ball boys; and the fans themselves. Reed is especially wary of the seven ticket holders with disabilities positioned behind the baseline during Cardinal home games.
How does one convince would-be court rushers to show the same concerns? Talk to them, says Nina Simmons, assistant director and events services manager of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte's Halton Arena/Barnhardt Student Activity Center. Simmons, who has written on the topic for the International Association of Assembly Managers, has seen several communication approaches prove effective. Some schools host preseason pizza parties, during which safety videos are shown. Others allow students early entry to the facility, then conduct pregame safety briefings.
For her part, Simmons first reads signals that a court rush may be imminent - a bitter rival comes to town or particularly long lines form at the ticket office - and staffs up accordingly. Then Simmons gauges the vibe created by the game itself (nail-biters, not blowouts, represent greater potential powder kegs) and takes to the stands during late timeouts, reasoning with all students within earshot to exhibit patience and order during their descent to the floor. "We walk right in front of them and say, `Listen, guys. Here's the rule. Here's the plan.' It works," Simmons says. "They're much more cooperative than they were before we started this. We try to speak to them like we would like to be spoken to."
This sort of "controlled chaos," as Simmons refers to it, is not uncommon, but it is not yet unanimously endorsed as the answer, either. On April 8, the NCAA will host a meeting on postgame crowd control, with attendees to include representatives of Divisions I, II and III institutions and their conference offices, as well as campus risk managers and event managers. The topic is expected to come up again in June, when the NCAA's second Sportsmanship and Fan Behavior Summit in less than four years convenes in New Orleans. "My hope is that we will be able to provide the membership an updated list of best practices and policies for managing the problem," says Ron Stratten, vice president for education services at the NCAA.
According to Stratten, the association, with help from its insurance consultant, has already developed a self-audit instrument designed to help campus administrators identify strengths and weaknesses in their emergency plan. The tool, which will be available to all NCAA members this fall, "will look at emergency plans for small, medium and large facilities and make suggestions on how to make a facility more secure and safe," Stratten says.
It is a defense mechanism sure to be met by a receptive audience. "We all recognize that this is a safety issue," says Simmons. "We're the people who run the buildings. We're looked to and held responsible for the safety of everyone who's in them. So we have to be careful. We're very conscious of what happens under our watch."