University of Maryland sports fans urged to clean up behavior

Task force holds forum at College Park campus

May 04, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Shout and scream at the opposing team. Chant and cheer until your voice grows hoarse.

But by all means, do it with class.

That was the message from University of Maryland athletic coaches last night at a forum organized by a student task force charged with a more challenging task than winning games: curtailing offensive behavior by sports fans.

Putting the University of Maryland at center court in a national debate over how to limit rowdy fans without violating free speech, the 16-member task force asked coaches, members of the Board of Regents and students to voice their suggestions last night.

The panel - the only one of its kind in the country - was formed in response to several embarrassing incidents involving offensive behavior by fans at College Park, including a January basketball game at Comcast Center when a vulgar chant shouted at visiting Duke University player J.J. Redick was audible on the national television broadcast by ESPN.

"I want to run a program of class," said football coach Ralph Friedgen, one of the first to address the task force and a crowd of about 200 at the forum. "The use of profanity is not class."

Friedgen cautioned students that failure to develop some type of official policy to curb rowdy fans could be detrimental to the caliber of the school's athletic program.

"I've lost recruits because their parents have been at a game and been embarrassed by the language," he said.

Basketball coach Gary Williams, who acknowledged the use of courtside profanity, appealed to students to stop using vulgar language. "You are the only people who can stop it."

And Williams promised, "I'm going to work really hard not to do it."

Soccer coach Sasho Cirovski echoed Friedgen. "At times, our fans have taken good behavior and become negative," he said, urging sports enthusiasts to act with the same "dignity and class" as the players.

Students also had turns at the microphone to address their concerns and question the student panel.

Lauren Katz, a sophomore who heads the university's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, was the first to challenge limits on expression as a violation of First Amendment rights, saying, "I urge you not to begin walking that dangerous tightrope of restricting students' speech."

Instead, Katz suggested, "Give the university a chance to show that we have learned from the rebukes."

Greg Tindale, president of the Student Government Association, agreed: "I don't think it should be the University of Maryland's job to tell us what we can and can't do."

Len Elmore, an ESPN sports analyst and former UM basketball star who moderated the forum, told students that television networks might yank Maryland games off the broadcast schedule if Terrapins fans continue to use vulgar language - particularly in light of Federal Communications Commission action after Janet Jackson's breast-baring stunt at the Super Bowl.

In the wake of the incident Feb. 1, the FCC launched a crackdown on indecency, initially targeting radio stations carrying the Howard Stern Show.

"I got news for you, they're not gonna show it [vile language] anymore," Elmore said. "They like to have their cameras on the stands, but when you wear those T-shirts, we cannot show that on television."

Clifford Kendall, chairman of the Board of Regents, tried to tug at the conscience of the rowdy fans with a more personal message - sharing his story of taking two of his 10 grandchildren to a basketball game, but deciding to leave because of the profane language.

"Many of the fans engage in behavior that is simply atrocious," he said. "I think it's just sad."

In response to the Duke game incident in January, University President C. D. "Dan" Mote Jr. and Williams sought the counsel of Maryland Assistant Attorney General John Anderson, who suggested that the school adopt a "carefully drafted" policy to curb vulgar speech at sporting events at the Comcast Center.

Four student athletes sit on the task force, which was formed by the Student Government Association. Besides a code of conduct, the panel is considering several options including a public relations campaign. It is expected to present suggestions to the administration this month.

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