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Has Sportsmanship Declined to a Dangerous Level in College Basketball?

I saw the highlights (or should I say, lowlights) of the Pittsburgh Panthers at West Virginia Mountaineers game this past week, and it really did give me cause for concern.  Fans were throwing objects onto the floor during the game, prompting Bob Huggins to grab the microphone and berate them for their stupidity.

But apparently, the message was not received.  A short while later, some crazed maniac threw an object, apparently a coin, that struck Pittsburgh assistant coach Tom Herrion just under his right eye, leaving a bruise.  All this prompted West Virginia to apologize to Pitt, and has the school thinking about what steps it can take to remedy the problem.

It goes without saying that the behavior of the West Virginia fans at that game was reprehensible, and prompted some writers to take shots at the state as a whole.  But West Virginia did produce Patrick Patterson, one of my favorite all-time UK players, so I will not be joining the broad-brush folks.

But this incident, along with others, does seem to be a warning to college basketball that things are getting a little bit out of hand.  Gary Parrish had a piece earlier this week that worries about the consequences if fan behavior continues to escalate toward violence and fighting words instead of taunts of "over-rated" when you are getting beaten.  The latter is moronic bad sportsmanship, but the former is actually dangerous.

The floor-storming incident in Columbia when the South Carolina Gamecocks upset the then #1 Kentucky Wildcats was rife with potential for violence, and an incident was even alleged (and apparently overblown) between DeMarcus Cousins and some random Gamecock floor-stormer, which is one of the reasons why storming the floor is forbidden and fines issued for the act.  I'm not so much condemning it as joining the worry that such incidents may produce the kind of orgiastic moment we all dread, like Ron Artest running into the stands during a professional basketball game and beating up a fan that apparently threw a drink at him.

West Virginia fans have been notably unhinged on several occasions this year -- the Pitt game already mentioned, and the Louisville game there where the crowd seemed just on the verge of throwing things and was constantly chanting, "Karen Sypher" at Louisville coach Rick Pitino.  WVU fans also apparently went off the reservation with crudity at the Ohio State game. 

At this point, I'd like to point out that this sort of thing was exactly what John Calipari was trying to avoid when he admonished UK fans not to get down in the gutter and embarrass the school when the Cardinals came to town.  Thankfully, UK fans, for the most part, complied.

But the purpose of this article is not to criticize West Virgina, but to point out how bad fan behavior has become.  It isn't new -- Grant Wahl at Sports Illustrated wrote this piece on fan behavior problems back in 2008, and here we are in 2010 discussing the same thing.

What is the answer?  Some arenas encourage patrons to call a cell phone number to have unruly fans removed.  Other arenas are quick to act and remove those who seem to be too drunk or engaging in bad behavior.  But there is no uniform standard, no magic bullet.  Referees can call technical fouls on crowds, but too much of that creates a question of fairness -- why should the athletes suffer for the behavior of the fans?

There is no easy answer that will satisfy all elements of equanimity.  One could, if the crowd kept misbehaving, call the game a forfeit, and force the hosting school to forfeit all proceeds of the game to charity, or as a fine to the league.  Of course, that's hardly fair to the team, who had nothing to do with the unethical behavior on the part of the fans, or to the school itself, who may have been making a good-faith effort at crowd control and been simply overwhelmed by the emotion of the moment.

Arenas have tried banning alcohol sales, but that just encourages patrons to arrive already inebriated or with hidden caches of social lubricant.  Objectionable or provocative signs have been banned, but that can run afoul of the First Amendment.  There are all sorts of creative things that have been done to stop rude and crude behavior, but with spotty success at best.

At the end of the day, schools and society in general must start teaching and acting to enforce the boundaries of ethical behavior in sports contests, and that's going to require a commitment from the student body, parents of students, fans of the school and school administrators.  Nobody wants to see school spirit dampened, or the intensity of rivalries dialed back to the point that they are no longer interesting, but the college basketball equivalent of the Malice at the Palace should rightly concern every college basketball fan.

One example of such a program is Husky Honor, something new being tried by the University of Connecticut.  It includes promoting sportsmanship, good general fan habits and pride in the program.  I think this is a good place to start.  Recognizing a problem exists is the first step to solving it, and I think all NCAA schools should make a commitment to help fans understand what behavior is off limits and what is acceptable, and take affirmative steps to improve the fan experience for everyone.

As fans, it is our duty to participate in the process, to rebuke or report dangerous or crude behavior, even though nobody relishes the role of ratting out their fellow-fan.  If we, as fans, worked harder to discourage those next to us from behaving badly when it becomes necessary, we might see a marked improvement.  But sitting on our hands and watching a guy wing a dangerous object at the floor is passively participating in his behavior, in my opinion.  There is a point at which fan activities become merely reprobate, and not supportive of anyone or anything.  I think most of us know where to draw that line.

There is no easy solution to this problem.  But it's high time that we all acknowledge it is a problem, and work together on a solution.