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A sports writer explains fan behavior

Court Storming: Are Sports Fans Crossing the Line?

A recent brawl puts fan behavior and court storming in the spotlight again.

I had no intention of writing about court storming, but after watching what happened Thursday night in the aftermath of the Utah Valley-New Mexico State men’s college basketball game in Orem, Utah, I kept thinking about why college sports fans continue to storm the court when their team wins. And if this latest ugly incident is going to do anything to finally curb this behavior.

Storming the court has become something of a rite of passage for college students. Your team wins a big game, you pour out of the student section and you celebrate on the field or court with the athletes and coaches. I’ve always thought it was exciting to watch a swarm of fans descend from their seats and express their joy and excitement, but it’s gotten to the point where fans are storming the court for any run-of-the-mill victory and it seems like they’re just looking for reasons to enter the players’ domain.

And Thursday night was an example of how things can go very wrong when fans and athletes are in close quarters. As the clock expired in Utah Valley's 66-61 overtime victory, New Mexico State’s K.C. Ross-Miller inexplicably fired the ball at Utah Valley’s Holton Hunsaker, setting off a melee that included students and “at least one New Mexico State player” throwing punches, while security and coaches desperately tried to restore order. Thankfully, no serious injuries have been reported.

“… this was inevitable,” former longtime college basketball coach and current ESPN personality Seth Greenberg said on SportsCenter, “and this is why eventually, court storming in general will be fined and outlawed just like it is in the SEC (Southeastern Conference). …Part of the tradition of college basketball is going to be eliminated because of a couple of bad apples.”

And many would argue that’s a good thing, because even though Thursday night’s incident was ugly, it easily could have turned into a far more serious situation. As safe as fans feel at college sporting events, there is the potential for serious injuries when you have thousands of young people storming the court, many of whom are fueled by alcohol, bad feelings toward the opponent and perhaps even worse intentions. For coaches, players and team personnel, how are they supposed to know if the fans charging at them are simply there to celebrate or to cause physical harm? It’s truly a frightening thought, and one that New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies said his players dealt with Thursday night.  

The brawl in Orem, Utah, came almost one year to the day after Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski complained about court storming after Virginia fans stormed the court following an upset win over his then-third-ranked Blue Devils. Coach K suggested at the time that fans should still be permitted to storm the court but only after the opposing team has exited the playing field. That just doesn’t seem plausible when emotions and excitement are running high and college students get sucked into the moment.

When I witnessed the mob mentality in Thursday night’s incident, I thought about a conversation I had with Dr. Rick Grieve, Coordinator of the Clinical Psychology Master’s Program and the director for the Clinical/Applied Research (CAR) group at Western Kentucky University, a few months ago about how environmental factors can play a role in fan behavior at games.

“It involves depersonalization and taking the role of the group rather than the role of the individual,” he said.

This depersonalization, and the development and strengthening of group morals, he told me, can lead to fans being “put in a state where it increases the likelihood of poor behavior.”

So unless college sports follow the path of professional sports and keep a clear boundary between fan and athlete, fans will continue to cross the line.

Matt Beardmore is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger.

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