Storming the court – and paying the price

Column by Chris Graham

Elizabeth Hood doesn’t look as fondly at raucous postgame celebrations that include fans rushing a college-basketball court as some of us might.

“I stood up at my chair right there, and they knocked me over,” said Hood, a retired usher who worked University of Virginia athletics events for more than 30 years, during a recent visit to University Hall.

The chair on press row that she had been sitting in for the UVa. home basketball game with Duke a few years back rolled over her ankle in the melee – “and broke it all the way through,” Hood said.

“The strength coach saved my life, they said. It was four or five football players behind me on top of me. If he hadn’t come and pulled them off, I probably would’ve died. That’s what they told me,” Hood told The Augusta Free Press.

A recent celebration following another game involving Duke – at Florida State earlier this month – brought fresh public attention to the issue of these kinds of celebrations. A national-television audience saw FSU fans streaming onto the court with time still on the game clock – prompting Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to send his bench players and coaches and other team personnel to the safety of the locker room for the final 1.7 seconds of the 79-74 Blue Devil loss.

“There’s such a great prospect for a tragedy when you see fans rushing the court or rushing the field at the end of a game – that caught up in that euphoria, there’s a great chance that somebody is going to get trampled. And certainly there’s a great potential for property damage. Just look at all of the reporters with laptops – who could see their property destroyed because of an onrush of people,” said Michael McCann, a professor at the Mississippi College School of Law and a regular contributor to The Sports Law Blog.

“When you’re caught up in that euphoria, it’s hard to put it away and not acknowledge it,” McCann said.

“Teams and security firms hired by teams have to be very cognizant of the potential tragedies that might arise when fans rush the court at the end of games. I think we’ve been lucky, to be honest. I think we’ve been really lucky that we haven’t seen an awful event happening with fans rushing the court,” McCann told the AFP.

Greg Skidmore, also a contributor to The Sports Law Blog, said schools are lucky as well not to have been made the subject of a headline-grabbing lawsuit as a result of incidents like those involving Hood and others injured in these celebrations.

“The main concern is the inherent dangers of hundreds or more students jumping over barriers and over other fans and rushing onto the court” Skidmore said.

“It’s already happened that somebody has gotten really hurt in these kinds of situations. And what I see happening in the future is that somebody is going to get hurt or even killed again, and they’re going to sue the university – claiming that the university or whoever owns the arena didn’t take reasonable action to keep fans off the court,” Skidmore said.

Skidmore points to policies put in place at schools like the University of Florida that threaten the loss of ticket privileges and even the prosecution of fans who run onto the court after a game as being only logical in terms of trying to prevent a situation from getting out of control quickly.

“If that’s all that it takes to keep students off the court, it’s going to be hard for a university or an arena where something bad happens to say, We just couldn’t stop it. They’re not going to have a whole lot of defense to say that they were powerless to stop it,” Skidmore said.

“And really, when you think about it, it shouldn’t take a lawsuit or a tragedy to institute these kinds of policies,” Skidmore said. “We shouldn’t have to wait for a student to die or a player to get severely injured for these kinds of policies to come into effect – especially when these kinds of things have already happened.

“I don’t know how much more of this it’s going to take before schools and the NCAA and conferences realize that this is a dangerous practice, and that it needs to stop,” Skidmore told the AFP.

Even with the success of the new get-tough policy at Florida, it could end up being that the attempt to try to legislate the end to these endgame celebrations is something that is easier said than it is done.

“There is not really a way to stop them – if they really, really want to rush the court,” said Nina Simmons, the assistant director of the Halton Arena/Barnhardt Student Activity Center at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

“You cannot hire enough security to truly stop them. But what you can do is create a situation where you have security bringing down students. And you don’t want that. You don’t want the PR nightmare of somebody getting hurt. It’s so much easier to try to control the chaos than it is to do that,” Simmons said.

UNC-Charlotte officials work up game plans before contests where there is the feeling that there might be the potential for fans to end up streaming onto the court, Simmons said.

“Communication with the fans is always a good idea,” Simmons said. “Let them know in advance if you anticipate that this is going to be something that takes place. We always had a very good idea – we could read the students. We had one game where we played Cincinnati, and if we won, it was an automatic storm the court. It was tradition – plain and simple. So we could anticipate that one – and we could prepare in advance.

“You can put some procedures in place to try to prevent it – but if you’re one of those schools that has that tradition, it’s going to happen,” Simmons told the AFP.

Murray State sports-psychology professor Daniel Wann explains why that is. Wann said the main reason that fans want to storm the court after games is “because that’s just what they’ve seen other schools do.”

“They didn’t sort of imagine this as the way of expressing their exhilaration. They’ve seen other schools on TV storm the court – and that becomes the celebration that’s accepted among the student bodies,” Wann said.

“What happens is, fans at high-level schools do it – and then fans from midmajor colleges or Division II colleges will watch games on TV and see it and say, Hey, that’s what the big boys do, so let’s emulate them. So now you see high-school teams where the fans storm the court. It all gets started with the media portraying it, and fans believing that is the appropriate way to express yourself,” Wann said.

There has been talk in the TV media about instituting policies that would limit or eliminate coverage of postgame celebrations to try to curb their appeal. Wann said “that might have an impact – but it wouldn’t be a very large one.”

“By now, you’ve had several years where this has sort of become the norm – and you can tell it’s a pretty powerful norm, because people storm the court after a win that’s not that big a win. It used to be reserved for beating a hated rival or winning a championship. Now you win a game against a lesser opponent, and you still do it,” Wann said.

“It’s so much a part of the sports lore that if the media quit showing it, it might have a minimal effect – but it’s pretty much wrapped up in mainstream sport now,” Wann told the AFP.

Luci Chavez, a reporter for The News and Observer in Raleigh who was on press row for the Duke-Florida State game from earlier this month that raised awareness of this issue, suffered more than a minimal effect – she was nearly trampled by fans streaming onto the court.

“I even got kicked in the head,” Chavez said the day after the game, still feeling the effects.

“In a situation like that, my personal opinion is that it had nothing to do with the level of security. With a crowd, where there’s a will, there’s a way. They were going to do what they were going to do,” Chavez told the AFP.

Chavez was back at work the next day – while Hood, for her part, was back in action not long after her brush with death.

“I missed one game – one,” Hood said. “I sat up there in the handicapped section for one game. The rest of the games, I was here working with my cast on.”

She remembers avoiding the onrush of students a year later when Virginia bested Duke for the second straight year.

“I had been told to get between the tables for safety reasons. I didn’t try to stop them that night. There was no stopping them when they get that way,” Hood said.

 

(Published 03-27-06)



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