Tuesday, January 19, 2016
An essential part of the youth sports experience is having fans cheering our kids. We parents love to attend their games and embarrass them (and occasionally ourselves) with loud vocal support. Unfortunately, especially as they grow older, our vocal support drifts and crosses the line to taunting the opposition. It’s a natural evolution fueled by tradition and learned behaviors at professional events. In the name of good sportsmanship we try to curb the instinct, and official rules of conduct for various youth sports organizations request that we abstain from jeers and focus on just cheering for our players. A recent national flap on this issue was sparked by the very high school sports governing board guidelines under which my own sons played here in Wisconsin. When the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) sent out an email reminding schools, coaches, players, students, and parents to avoid taunting, even helpfully including a list of phrases to avoid, a basketball student-athlete took exception to the perceived restrictions and lashed out via social media with a profanity-laced rant. Her punishment was a five game suspension, not for attacking the guidelines but for violating the athlete’s code of ethics by swearing in her posts. There it might have ended, but her local paper picked up the story, and suddenly so did ESPN and Sports Illustrated. Without all the facts public opinion was squarely with the student and her position that the guidelines were stupid, and also condemning the WIAA for the suspension.
I find this all very intriguing beginning with people being so upset with being asked to be civil at games. I guess we could chalk it up to the right to personal expression being curbed by this stuffy organization, which overall doesn’t always have the best reputation in Wisconsin. People probably look upon ridiculing as an entitlement for attending sporting events. Watching and supporting sports for parents of athletes is a personal experience, which only extends to the school or club because of their children’s association with those institutions. Therefore, we are probably less interested in deriding the opponents than in supporting our own kids. However, for most students releasing their energy through cheering and jeering is considered a rite of passage. Even athletes speak positively about the contempt heaped upon them with chants and catcalls during games. Somehow it’s a backhanded compliment that their abilities elicit the need to heckle them.
One unavoidable reason that this has provoked such a strong response is the way the WIAA framed their decree. First they called it a “point of emphasis,” which just screams of ivory tower, living in a bubble, elitism. Instead of speaking in normal terms that simply encourage participants to avoid excessive ridicule, the email did highlight possible consequences for violating the guidelines, which only fueled the anger. Naturally, the WIAA had to quickly discount the enforcement portion of their email, since they never had sanctioned any school or person for “normal” taunts. The WIAA should have simply reiterated their stance on the more significant issue of taunts that cross the lines of decorum such as attacks that focus on a physical disability, a player’s race or religion, sexism, or ethnic backgrounds should never be tolerated, encouraging schools, fans, and participants to make a good faith effort to tone down the jeers heard regularly during most sporting events. Unfortunately the WIAA provided a “helpful” list of phrases to avoid, which only further reinforced their total out-of-touch position. Here are the phrases: air ball, you can’t do that, fundamentals, scoreboard, and sieve. Holy Cow! Other than air ball, I think very few of us have heard any of these phrases used in the last decade as a way to mock the other team. That may explain why none of these guidelines have been enforced because they rarely occur having been replaced by far more current vernacular.
Right now, the WIAA has been heaped with national ridicule for their well-intended, poorly executed email, the purpose of which was simply to reinforce the concept of good sportsmanship. I don’t think most people would argue that fair play extends to the use of language, and in general, people want to maintain some level of appropriateness in their public shouts. However, even as long ago as the Roman amphitheaters people expressed both support and disdain with shouts, bringing a more sinister element to these emotions with a thumbs up or down on letting a competitor live. Luckily, we don’t go that far. The WIAA further caught grief for its treatment of the high school tweeter. Most people assume she was punished for questioning the WIAA’s policies, but she was actually punished for violating the athletic code on profanity that flowed freely in her posts. There is a case to be made for consistency. Profanity is officially considered cause for all different types of consequences for high school and college athletes, but these consequences are rarely enforced. Players should receive an official warning if they swear during a game, and if they swear at an official that is supposed to be immediate removal (usually a red card in a soccer game). But officials don’t enforce the policy most of the time and decide when a situation is egregious enough to warrant a send-off, which makes enforcement very subjective and therefore open to challenges if applied. That weakens both the policies and the issuing organization. Many people thought a five game suspension was overkill for the young athlete, and there’s certainly a possibility that it will be overturned or diminished. All of which makes the WIAA look like it overreacted and when it comes to implementation chose a rather knee-jerk approach.
While the entire incident has become an embarrassment for the WIAA, it has opened the conversation on what might be appropriate when we cheer at games. Language is extremely difficult to police, and even the WIAA admitted that their email wasn’t new policy to control behavior, just a reminder of long-standing guidelines. However, we do have common sense tests for what should and shouldn’t be voiced. We can all tolerate some taunting. It seems to be part of the culture of “sticks and stones.” What we need to avoid are personal attacks that border on hate speech. I don’t like profanity, especially when young kids are around, but it has become the way many of us express our intense positions. As a writing teacher, I’m appalled that three four letter words seem to have replaced the elegance and beauty of all English adjectives, adverbs and verbs, but I understand in the age of texts and 140 character tweets we have reverted to a much more abbreviated and profane way of emphasizing our points. I’d rather see us focus on speech that can harm rather than speech that is clanking and abrasive but is essentially just puffery. My sons are biracial, and they were taunted regularly with racial slurs, which concern me far more that someone shouting “F” you at them. The WIAA hasn’t attended to this issue enough, and officials have been as lax in handling verbal attacks as they have been in handling profanity, perhaps placing both on the same level.
Because this situation ended up highlighting the relatively minor issues of common jeering and simple profanity and the ridiculous way the WIAA approached the problem, the press missed the chance to zero in on more significant concerns at our youth games. Definitely, we parents need to take as high a road as possible to set a good example for our kids. But we can’t avoid the serious issues of heckling, which becomes ugly and personal. It’s incumbent upon governing organizations to not only make policies clear on these racist, sexist, and physical appearance attacks, but to find ways to enforce them. This means setting guidelines and requirements for officials so that they more aggressively handle personal attack situations. Coaches and schools need to be held accountable for their athletes’ behaviors and to an extent their fans’ behaviors, and all punishments must be fairly applied to all involved. Kids who chant “loser” aren’t the problem, but kids who chant racial slurs are and should be sanctioned either individually if possible or as a school. All too often the worst situations are glossed over or ignored which only emboldens hecklers the next game. It’s unfortunate that the WIAA is taking all the heat because I’m sure other state athletic associations and sports governing organizations have similar problems. They just didn’t get called out so publically by first an athlete and then by national publications. Nevertheless, everyone needs to revisit the issue of good sportsmanship as it relates to language. We can laugh at the flubs of the WIAA, but we shouldn’t dismiss the dangers of hate filled jeering. As one local high school coach said, “We just ask students to cheer and support their team rather than cheering against the other team.” Good advice.