Common indecency

The Baltimore Sun

UCLA was the opponent, and the University of Oregon student section was trying desperately, as it always does, to get inside the heads of opposing basketball players.

But on this January night, the McArthur Court "Pit Crew" took it further than usual - crossing from zany and clever to vicious and crass - as it rained profanities on the Bruins and their freshman center, Kevin Love, and taunted his family.

The yellow-clad Pit Crew is far from the only rooting section guilty of over-the-top behavior in the past year. The volume of incidents - including at the University of Illinois, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and at Rutgers during a Navy football game - has alarmed NCAA president Myles Brand and college administrators and raised debate on why there seems to be a run on nastiness in college arenas and what can be done about it.

"It concerns me a great deal," Brand said last week. "I think it's intolerable, and we're talking to members about it."

For colleges, it can be a tricky balancing act. While schools aim to prevent ugly behavior, many fear impinging students' First Amendment rights or draining excitement from the game-day experience.

"It is up to college officials, coaches and referees to clamp down hard and fast when things move from loud and boisterous to in-your-face and demeaning," said Hodding Carter III, a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a watchdog group. "Fan behavior in some arenas is, indeed, over-the-line disgusting and in some cases a physical threat to players."

Maryland officials say it has moved past the reputation College Park once held as a place where students harassed visiting fans and set small fires along Route 1 after big wins, particularly over Duke in basketball. Athletic department administrators still wince when students yell "You suck" after singing Gary Glitter's "Rock & Roll, Part 2," which the university forbids the band from playing.

"Do I personally think that can reflect poorly on Maryland? Yes," said Brian Ullmann, an associate athletic director. "I would love to see the students replace 'You suck' with 'Go Terps.' "

During a 2001 game at Cole Field House, Renee Boozer, the mother of then-Blue Devils center Carlos Boozer, was struck in the head by a full plastic water bottle thrown by a student. Maryland has since made it easier to discipline and expel students who riot. It broadcasts messages about sportsmanship during games and has provided free T-shirts if students cover up existing ones featuring profane messages (often involving Duke). Maryland positions several campus police officers in the student section and near the visitors' bench during games.

Fan misbehavior is not a new problem.

When he played for Georgetown in the 1980s, center Patrick Ewing was occasionally greeted with racially charged banners and taunts on the road.

"You should have gone down to Tobacco Road in the '70s when I played," said ESPN analyst and former Maryland basketball standout Len Elmore. "There were epithets tossed around at the University of Virginia and at Clemson. They didn't have a lot of black players, and they resented that Maryland had a lot of them on the floor."

If the incidents seem more numerous today, it might be because arenas have grown and more games are broadcast. "I think it's the exposure," said George Mason athletic director Tom O'Connor, chairman of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship Committee. "Everybody hears about everything now, and everybody writes about it."

Homemade videos of athletes and fans are more accessible than ever on the Web, sports sociologist Jay Coakley said. He said all of the attention creates "college-athlete celebrities who are loved and loathed for various reasons."

Consider Duke's J.J. Redick, a favorite target of fans at rival Atlantic Coast Conference schools until joining the NBA in 2006. Maryland was embarrassed when vulgar chants directed at Redick by its fans in 2004 were audible on ESPN's national broadcast.

"If you can play in this kind of environment, you can play in any kind of environment," Duke guard Greg Paulus said after the Blue Devils played at Comcast Center on Jan. 27. "They come out, standing outside before the game with signs. And then there's the noise."

Said Duke freshman Nolan Smith: "They warned me - my teammates told me this was going to be the worst."

There were no incidents reported during the game, won by Duke.

While Maryland students still occasionally shout obscenities at opposing players and officials during games, much of the taunting is more innocent - as when a fan yelled "Hey, Gary Coleman!" at 5-foot-9 American guard Derrick Mercer during a December loss.

The NCAA suggests seating rowdy fans away from the opposing team's bench and recommends that schools ask fans to root for their team but not against their opponent. Maryland places student groups it knows and trusts behind the visitor's bench, according to Ullmann.

Schools have learned the hard way that their reputations are at stake when fans get out of hand.

In September, Rutgers apologized for what it called "jeers and vulgarities hurled by a small group of students" during the Navy game. "No student-athlete should ever be subject to profane language directed at them from the crowd, and certainly not the young men of the Naval Academy who have made a commitment to serve our nation in a time of war," Rutgers president Richard L. McCormick wrote Navy.

Oregon athletic director Pat Kilkenny apologized to UCLA after the Jan. 24 game, won by the Bruins. Love was singled out by fans because he had spurned his home state to play for the Bruins. His father, Stan Love, who was in the crowd, had starred at Oregon and later played for the Baltimore Bullets.

"We held up signs no one below the age of 18 should read. We taunted his family and occasionally offered to fight a family member," Pit Crew member Robert Husseman wrote in what amounted to a confession in the Oregon Daily Emerald student newspaper. "We threw in a curse word every chance we could."

Oregon had recently instituted fan etiquette education programs because of earlier incidents, said Paul Swangard, managing director of the university's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. But Swangard said the programs had been "somewhat ineffective" because of student turnover.

Jacob May, sports editor of the student newspaper, said Pit Crew members, many of them underclassmen, "were surprised by all the attention. I don't think they knew all the ramifications."

"The Pit Crew had a bad game," Husseman wrote. "Our performance was pathetic. It wasn't even that loud."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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