Working on game plan to referee rowdy fans

UM panel explores ways to improve behavior of student spectators

April 19, 2004|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN STAFF

A group of students has gathered on a Wednesday night on the University of Maryland campus. They must be: a.) rioting b.) spewing profanity c.) causing some sort of general disruption d.) all of the above.

Based on recent events, you could be forgiven for assuming the answer is "d." But these 16 students aren't causing trouble.

They've been charged with determining how student fans should be allowed to act at UM basketball games -- a policy decision that could have implications for public universities nationwide as colleges grapple with increasingly rowdy spectators.

The issue came to a head at College Park in January, when some in the crowd at the Comcast Center broke into an off-color chant aimed at Duke guard J.J. Redick that could be heard on sets tuned to the nationally televised game.

Despite pleas from Terrapins head coach Gary Williams and university President C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr. about behavior at games, officials thought more action was necessary and sought legal advice about what they could do.

State Assistant Attorney General John Anderson advised that the school could adopt a "carefully drafted" policy that prohibits offensive speech at Comcast Center events.

The university asked a Student Government Association official to set up a committee to make recommendations to the administration. The panel, which includes four student athletes, is exploring options ranging from public relations efforts to a code of conduct that would allow the ejection of fans for behavior that currently is protected as free speech.

A forum to get student input will be held May 3, moderated by former Terps forward and broadcaster Len Elmore. Football coach Ralph Friedgen and men's soccer coach Sasho Cirovski will also speak.

"Are there worse institutions when it comes to sporting events and how they behave? Absolutely," said Elmore, who recalled hearing racial epithets as a player in the 1970s. "The university is my alma mater. I'm very proud of what it's accomplished, proud of the students, and don't want to see anything minimize the admiration that they have throughout the nation."

Committee members acknowledge that it could be hard to change the behavior of students accustomed to off-color chants and T-shirts adorned with "[Expletive] Duke" and "[Expletive] Duke and Saddam," equating a ruthless dictator with their most hated basketball rival.

`Something wrong'

"We need to socially change the environment at Comcast. Students are saying, `This is the environment I've come into.' There's obviously something wrong here," said senior David Krieger, the student government representative who heads the committee.

Fan behavior has been on the decline nationally in recent years, said Kevin Matthews of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

A University of Texas player was hit in the head this season by a water bottle thrown by a Providence College fan, while a University of Kansas audience chanted profanities at a referee's call.

The student panel at College Park has met three times and hopes to have recommendations for Mote by the end of the semester in mid-May. Meetings with Williams and a survey for alumni and students are also in the works.

"Our first concern is students' rights," Krieger said, adding that the recommendations likely will emphasize deterrence, not punishment. He said the panel doesn't plan on testing the limits of Anderson's opinion -- which is probably a good thing, according to one First Amendment expert.

Anderson cited language in the 1971 Supreme Court case of Cohen vs. California that he said suggests the regulation of words at specific locations -- in this case, a publicly funded sports arena -- might be upheld.

People attending a game are "captives," he wrote, "whose only recourse is to leave the stadium or stop attending games."

But Ronald Collins, a scholar at the nonprofit First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., believes Anderson erred. Wearing a profane T-shirt in a basketball arena is no different than wearing it in a park, he said.

"I would say the attorney general's memorandum raises serious First Amendment problems, and I do not believe the captive audience analogy to be a sound one," Collins said. "The First Amendment protects offensive speech."

Nevertheless, Matthews applauded the university's willingness to take action.

A call for action

"Somebody has to do something about this, and it's just good to see that there are people who are willing to take a stance and take some action," he said. "This would be a useful test case, and I applaud the university's leadership."

University spokesman George Cathcart said students were given the unusual task of determining their fate because they may perceive an administrative decision to be out of touch.

"Students are the problem, ... and we think they'll be the solution," Cathcart said. "Without leadership from students, it just isn't going to work. We're the big bad administrators, and students don't want to be told what to do by us."

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