Amid recent reports of fatal shootings and violent brawls at high school football games — not to mention the ongoing shortage of game officials — the National Federation of State High School Associations is exploring ways to change the culture of middle school and high school sporting events.
“This is a must, if we are going to retain and recruit people to officiate games,” Karissa Niehoff, the federation’s chief executive officer, said in a recent video message, during which she announced the creation of a task force designed to help keep sports officials and others safe. “Everyone has a role to play in ensuring a positive atmosphere at sporting events, and it has to start before high school at the youth and middle school levels. Coaches need to share expectations with parents at preseason meetings, administrators must establish and enforce rules at events. Parents must come to the event to support — not criticize or yell at — their child or the coaches and officials.”
Niehoff’s message came in the wake of the NFHS Behavior in Sports Summit, held in Indianapolis in August and attended by high school coaches, administrators, state association directors and others. She added that similar events will be held “until people feel safe officiating high school sports.”
Some states already are taking matters into their own hands. Over the summer, the New Mexico Activities Association updated its sportsmanship bylaws to include specific penalties for “egregious” acts of unsportsmanlike conduct — including suspension of a team or fan from athletic activities.
The “two strikes and you’re out” bylaw now reads: ”Any time an egregious act of unsportsmanlike conduct by a team participant, including a coach, occurs two or more times during the same season, at the same school, in the same activity, the team will be suspended from participation in that activity for the remainder of the season. Also, any time an egregious act of unsportsmanlike conduct by a non-team participant (for example, a parent or fan) occurs two or more times during the same season, at the same school, in the same activity, the non-team member, along with all school spectators will be suspended from attendance in that activity for the remainder of the season.”
The association cites as examples of “egregious” behavior fans entering the playing surface to engage in acts of violence or abuse, constant verbal attacks on officials, attacking other fans, coaches physically or verbally attacking officials, players fighting other players during post-game handshakes, or student sections verbally chanting inappropriate or demeaning comments towards individuals, teams or officials.
“It’s become a problem not only in New Mexico but nationwide,” Sally Marquez, executive director of the NMAA, said in a video explaining the new rules to players and fans. “We have seen officials threatened, we have seen them being followed out to cars. … We need to curb this bad behavior.”
She noted that similar bylaws are in place in Oklahoma, Louisiana and other states, where parents police each other.
“We need to get back to when we see bad behavior, we need to address bad behavior,” Marquez said. “A lot of times, we’re in the stands … and we’re waiting for someone else to address it.”
Similarly, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association in May approved a spectator sportsmanship policy that took effect this fall and “establishes guidelines for the discipline and reprimanding of poor behavior by spectators,” according to The Buffalo News. “Those bad behaviors range from verbal harassment to the use of racist and sexist language to harass participants, including athletes, coaches and officials.”
As noted by AthleticBusiness.com:
The NYSPHSAA policy outlines three levels of discipline.
- A first warning means spectators will be directed to refrain from further comments or actions.
- A second warning results in a personal discussion that addresses the behavior, between site administrators and the spectators.
- The third action results in removal from an event. If the spectator or spectators refuse to leave the facility, then play will be stopped until they have left.
Some behavior can result in ejection without warning, according to NYSPHSAA officials.
“It’s gotten worse since COVID,” Mark DiFilippo, executive director of the state association’s Section VI, told The Buffalo News. “A lot of things have changed, and I don’t know what it is, but it’s definitely gotten worse in the last couple years. Prior to COVID, you had things happen from time to time, but after a spectator ban at high school sporting events was lifted [prior to the 2021-22 school year], and spectators were brought back, we’ve just had a lot more incidents.”
At the local level, school officials in Montgomery County, Md., recently implemented several new security measures in the wake of a violent fight that happened after a football game between cross-county rivals Walter Johnson High School and Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. According to NBCWashington.com:
School officials said all public high schools in the county will now have to make several security changes for football games:
• Students must show their IDs before going into games
• Backpacks are no longer allowed
• Schools must limit crowds at games to 75% of the stadium’s capacity
• Montgomery County police officers will be assigned to patrol areas where students are known to gather after games
Meanwhile, Hermitage High School in Laurel, Va., issued new rules in September for spectators at its athletic events. Announced in a Sept. 6 letter to parents, the new policy states that “anyone under the age of 18 will be prohibited from attending the school’s football games without someone over the age of 21 accompanying them,” reports WRIC.com. “The adult will be required to bring an ID and will be responsible for supervising the minor for the duration of the game. … After the game, fans will be required to leave the stadium immediately and loitering will not be allowed in or near the parking lot.”
Social media threats and an uptick in fan fights throughout the state has local school officials concerned.
“The expectation is that all students will behave in a manner that upholds the standards to which we hold ourselves and one another every day at Hermitage High School,” Michael Jackson, president of Hermitage High School, said in the letter, adding that students who fail to do so will face disciplinary action. “Working together, we can help ensure that athletic events and all after-school activities are safe and enjoyable experiences for our students, families and guests.”
And let’s not forget about what went down in New Jersey this summer. Deptford Township Little League forced parents who harassed umpires to step in behind home plate and call balls and strikes themselves.
“[Parents] think that the call was bad, which always amazes me that they can see a strike better over there than the umpire can,” Deptford Township Little League President Dan Bozzuffi told 6abc.com, adding that two league umps quit in one week. “They’re coming here, they’re being abused, they don’t need that. So they’re walking away.”
Bozzuffi noted that the new rule allowed parents who think they know best “to see what’s going on out here, and it’s not that easy.” He told another news outlet he wants to see disruptive parents “squirm.”