Turning Down the Heat: Addressing Spectator Anger at Interscholastic Athletic Events

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The vitriol that permeated American life over the past decade has percolated into our schools  — in particular, at after-school sporting events attended by the public. Anger toward officials, coaches and even student-athletes is on full display on a nightly basis in gymnasiums and stadiums. In some scenarios, the toxicity of spectators has manifested as violence or threats against others before, during and after contests. Attending to the security of participants, officials and spectators drains the time, energy and resources of school officials whose basic goal is to provide a fun and enjoyable athletic experience for students.

The challenge of providing a safe environment for conducting after-school activities has only been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. High school athletic directors and other administrative personnel found themselves as nightly arbiters in the national political debate about First Amendment rights regarding masking and vaccination requirements at state-mandated gatherings. They are also tasked with managing interactions – and people – in situations for which they have no experience or formal training, yet in a setting (the American school) for which they are responsible.

Now is the time for those people entrusted with managing high school athletic events to be active in turning down the heat at these critical opportunities for student learning and growth.  Returning the temperature at our athletic contests to a pre-pandemic level requires focusing more attention on the fundamentals of event supervision and an increased awareness of interpersonal communication and anger de-escalation. Although change will not and cannot occur overnight, progress toward a return to civility in our gyms and on our fields can be achieved one interaction at a time.

The need for active supervision

Most problems that occur at high school athletic contests are preventable if the host school employs techniques that can help those in charge effectively administer those events. One of the biggest factors contributing to problems during secondary educational events is the lack of active supervision. Eighty percent of the lawsuits filed against schools are about supervision or lack thereof. The courts have consistently ruled that schools must provide a reasonable standard of care.

The key to ensuring that the event is managed safely and effectively involves providing training to those tasked with working it. Before the event starts, the manager or lead supervisor (usually the athletic director) should conduct a meeting to discuss event roles and responsibilities. A cardinal rule for all event workers is that they are responsible for working the event, not watching it. Ensuring that everyone on the team understands the overall plan for managing the activity and their role in that vision is critical to team success.

During team meetings, the event manager should facilitate conversations with those working the event to take the temperature of the community. It is important to understand if there are specific underlying issues – about the school, the athletic program, a coach or any other contributing factor – that could arise during the game. There also needs to be an emphasis on creating a calm, compassionate and non-confrontational environment. These discussions are crucial for all involved to begin the event with a mindset for success.

The best offense for an event management team to employ in supervising a venue filled with rabid, partisan fans is to construct an effective zone defense. The event supervisor should divide the facility into zones or coverage areas. Each team member is assigned a portion of the venue to observe and manage. The “divide and conquer” approach allows not only better overall coverage of a given facility but also creates an opportunity for staff to see what is happening in the facility and be seen by potentially disruptive spectators.

By scanning one’s assigned area every few minutes, the team member should look for signs of frustration or anger among individual spectators or groups. They should listen for loud, obnoxious voices criticizing officials, opponents or coaches. Once the irate fan has been identified, it is important to use pattern-matching recognition. Identify them by their apparel; it will be easier to pick them out of a crowd by what they are wearing.

Communicating with fans

People entrusted with managing high school athletic contests in today’s challenging environment find themselves encountering angry spectators who may prove disruptive if not addressed appropriately. The key is “adjusting the thermostat” (i.e., helping them reach a calmer, more manageable state) and involves maintaining one’s cool and keeping control at all times. Some best practices for communicating with fans while not ramping up the situation are as follows:

  •  De-escalate the spectator’s anger by watching them (if they perceive you are paying attention to them).
  •  Use nonverbal techniques such as hand or facial expressions that communicate that the behavior is inappropriate.
  •  Create proximity by moving closer to the irate fan. If they are sitting 30 rows up, go sit by them. If they are closer to the playing surface, stand by them.
  •  If the fan continues to be upset, the event worker needs to address the individual. Don’t wait. If this negative behavior happens in the first quarter, do not wait until the fourth quarter to intervene.
  •  When addressing the abusive fan, lower your voice and keep all dialogue in question format. Be compassionate, kind and considerate. You have no idea what else is going on in their life. We all have issues that may influence our behavior.
  •  Demonstrate empathy by utilizing phrases such as, “I’m sorry, sir, can I help you?”
  •  Actively listen and use eye contact 100 percent of the time when speaking with them.
  •  Once a situation is diffused, try to set limits and give the person choices. (“Sir, you want to stay and watch your child play, right?  If so, you must follow our spectator code of conduct rules.”)
  •  Sometimes, it is important to work as a team to de-escalate challenging individuals.  Behavior influences behavior. A person cannot effectively de-escalate others if they are also escalating. If an administrative team member is having a verbal altercation with a fan, other team members may have to intervene. In those scenarios, it is important to let the angry teammate leave the scene. The “tag-team partner” has a far better chance of a successful intervention in such a case.

Controlling the climate

School officials can begin the steps toward reclaiming control of their athletic events by providing a calm, compassionate, nonconfrontational setting for all events to run successfully. The temperature within our buildings and at after-school events is rising. Now is the time to begin the process of lowering the metaphorical mercury in schools before it is too late.   Controlling the climate in our school facilities cannot occur without taking back control of those environments.

It is time to revisit basic principles in psychology and sociology that many educators learned during their training. Fan behavior seems to mirror society. We are seeing a trend where patience is not always exercised. People are looking for immediate gratification, and if something during the event doesn’t go their way, we see people react inappropriately. How school officials respond to them will dictate, for the long term and short term, how the climate of athletics in the school unfolds.

Game management has never been more critical at any time in the history of interscholastic athletics. Our educational-based programs are crucial, as they keep our youth active and healthy. Our officials, whose numbers have decreased significantly, deserve a safe officiating environment. We should not have to rely solely or primarily on law enforcement to maintain order at an amateur event.

With the right training, strategies and teamwork, we have access to the thermostat and need to make the necessary adjustments.

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