There are few things that get adrenaline pumping more than a college basketball game. Passion is one word that truly exemplifies fans and it is the sole reason why it’s universally embraced, especially during the month of March. Being a college sports fan while attending school is a unique opportunity and it’s something that isn’t taken lightly by its demographic.
“There’s definitely nothing like the pride that is associated with your alma mater,” University of Oregon student Cody Karlin said. “That’s what we’re here for, that’s what we’re supporting. The athletes that we’re supporting are our peers. They’re in classes with us so it definitely adds another element.”
Although supporting your team is part of the college basketball atmosphere, there are rare cases where this passion transforms into blatant disrespect. That’s when a fine line has to be drawn.
On Feb. 8, a national audience zeroed in on two specific incidents involving the Oregon Ducks and Oklahoma State Cowboys. Though the two were separate, they both shed light on what crossing that line can look like. The fallout was understandably unsympathetic.
In Oregon’s case, it was an Arizona State fan spitting on coaches and players during halftime. Wells Fargo Arena has a unique structure where opposing teams must pass the home crowd to reach their locker room. For Oregon, this was where the problems began and ended. Oregon decided not to press charges, but the unidentified fan has since been revoked of his season tickets.
“My initial reaction was just embarrassment,” Arizona State student Shay Roddy said. “I think any time that one of those types of incidents happen where it kind of reflects on the whole student population, in this case the whole fan base, I was just embarrassed for him and anyone associated with ASU.”
Oklahoma State star player Marcus Smart gained national attention for all the wrong reasons. Following a foul, Smart was pulled toward the fans behind the basket and a physical altercation between Texas Tech fan Jeff Orr and Smart occurred. It was reported that Orr called Smart “a piece of crap.” Smart received a three-game suspension while Orr voluntarily forfeited his right to attend any more games this season.
“What was he thinking?” Oregon guard Johnathan Loyd said when asked about his reaction to the Smart situation. “You can’t react like that. I just did write a paper on this little situation, so I did some research and some people said that it was kind of a learning experience. People said it was inevitable that it was about time that a player snapped in college and went into the stands, but for me it’s just emotions were flaring and just flipped up.”
The simple reason for singling out these two incidents was that they reflected a minority of fans who walk the fine line. It isn’t a coincidence that these fans aren’t also usually representative of their respective institution. College arenas across the country host thousands of spectators and problems are likely to occur.
“Fans are crazy,” Rodney Witherspoon, owner of N Da Kut barbershop and Crowd Management Services member, said. “People that pay for tickets, they think they have the right to say what they want to say and personally, I’ve been attacked a couple times, called names, but they were intoxicated. I think that those (Marcus Smart and ASU incident) were isolated incidents that got reported. I think that kind of thing (altercations) goes on all the time.”
Among the many grey areas of being a respectful fan, the lesson learned from the aforementioned games was that human decency helps draw what could be the only fine line for fans. By listing verbal abuse and physical altercations as intolerable acts, it simplified what is and isn’t appropriate during games. Furthermore, the personalization of players is more often than not, a no go.
“Whether it’s stuff you’re saying, stuff you’re throwing, stuff you’re spitting, there’s no place for any of it,” Roddy said. “Any behavior that’s meant to be disrespectful, I just don’t think there is any place for it.”
This line is as old as the game of basketball itself.
“That line has always been there,” Oregon Senior Associate Athletic Director Craig Pintens said. “You go back and look at history of different student sections, there’s always been incidents. It hasn’t changed.”
This is the Catch-22 of college basketball. Even though fan bases can be known for being respectful and passionate, it only takes one person to ruin the experience for the rest. With the ambiguity of toeing the line between right and wrong, there is only so much a fan base can do to keep problems under wrap.
“In general, you can’t punish an entire group of people for an isolated incident,” Pit Crew Media Director Bryan Kalbrosky said.
This is why teaching basic etiquette has become a factor among college student sections. For example, before every game at Matthew Knight Arena, the Pit Crew makes sure fans get basic information about appropriate behavior. With their simple intentions, these one-page papers have arguably kept problems at a minimum at Oregon for the past four years.
“In the student section newsletter that we produce every game, we have a blurb on the front page, big bold lettering that says, ‘If it would be something that would make your grandmother blush,’ don’t do that,” Kalbrosky said. “I think it’s pretty well read, pretty well-respected considering there have been very few incidents in the last four years.”
The unfortunate reality is that there isn’t a fool-proof formula for preventing these horror stories from ever happening, but methods like this offer insight into how college fans should be thinking and feeling during a game. The pursuit of thinking before you act really can go a long way, but it’s much easier said than done.
The bottom line is that fans and their teams share a symbiotic relationship, especially in regard to home court advantage. But without fans there is no difference between home and away games and for this reason, the relatively arbitrary line between being passionate and disrespectful exists. A lot of what transpires in a college basketball arena can be described as controlled madness, but this very madness is what makes college basketball special.
“College basketball is probably the sport where home court advantage can make the biggest difference,” Pintens said. “And if you look across any college sport in particular because of the involvement of students, they can create an atmosphere that is unrivaled in any other college sport.”
This past week, college basketball fans were forcefully reminded of the unfortunate events that can surface. And for the most part, they served as lessons. But for as long as a minority of fans that don’t understand the fundamental difference between right and wrong, there will continue to be issues. Fans will be fans, some will just take the definition literally.
Follow Hayden Kim on Twitter @HayDayKim