Wisconsin high school athletic officials merely listed a few chants they considered unsportsmanlike.
And then viral outrage overwhelmed them. State and local school officials were hit by a tirade of social media rants, angry e-mails and phone calls and a deluge of criticism from national sports reporters who couldn’t believe chants like “Air ball!” and “Sieve!” were being banned from the stands.
“I think people are just waiting for this to go away,” said Stan Diedrich, athletic director at Hilbert High School, a school of 130 students about 20 miles south of Green Bay. “It’s been made into a huge deal that it never should have been made into.”
It all began innocently enough when the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) sent an e-mail to its 500 member schools on Dec. 22 as a friendly reminder about sportsmanship. It said that in the fall there had been a “noticeable increase in the amount of chants” taunting opponents and their supporters.
“Any action directed at opposing teams or their spectators with the intent to taunt, disrespect, distract or entice an unsporting behavior in a response is not acceptable sportsmanship,” the e-mail said. “Student groups, school administrators and event managers should take immediate steps to correct this unsporting behavior.”
The e-mail included a few examples: “You can’t do that,” “Fun-da-mentals,” “Airball,” “There’s a net there,” “Sieve,” “We can’t hear you” and “Season’s over.”
Such dos and don’ts of cheers and chants aren’t new; they’ve been in the athletic association’s guidelines for about a decade, Todd Clark, WIAA spokesman, said Wednesday.
But at 9:57 a.m. on Jan. 4, a vulgar tweet from a high school athlete that got her suspended for 4½ games sparked the flow of viral outrage. April Gehl, a three-sport athlete at Hilbert, quoted the association’s e-mail in her tweet, along with an all-caps obscene response directed at the WIAA.
Diedrich said school officials, not the WIAA, suspended the student because her tweet violated the school’s conduct code. She didn’t appeal the discipline.
The tweet, her suspension and the WIAA’s view of unsportmanslike behavior then took on a life of its own, making the rounds from the local newspaper to global wire services to the Internet as people took school and state athletic officials to task for trying to dictate cheers and chants and for suspending the teen.
Clark and Diedrich said much of the outrage may be the result of misinformation. “We’re not banning or prohibiting any of these chants,” Clark said. The idea was to give some examples of what might be considered unsportsmanlike behavior, but officials at each school could decide for themselves, he said.
“These kind of chants are directed at opponents in an unflattering way,” Clark said. “Whether they’re common or not common, there’s still an element of disrespect to somebody else.”
At most, some school officials might approach a student at a game and suggest they cut out the jeering, he said.
The athletic association is being accused of overreach, he said. “But they reflect the gold standard [of sportsmanship]. It’s about promoting high ideals. Nothing is mandating them to stop [these chants], and no one is mandating a penalty.”
Jeering at Badgers and Packers games is commonplace, Clark said. But high school is different.
“We’re an extension of the classroom,” he said. “You don’t do that in a chemistry lab. You don’t do that at a forensics meet.”
The legal view
Paul Dworak, a civil rights attorney with the Minneapolis law firm of Gaskins Bennett Birrell Schupp, said schools can regulate speech that occurs on campus, which would include sporting events, if it’s vulgar, lewd or plainly offensive.
“But ‘Air ball’? I think you would be hard-pressed to fit it in anyone of those categories,” he said. “Or ‘Sieve’ or any of the common chants that appear to be a rite of passage. It seems a little ridiculous to me.
“I understand the motive and it’s something to strive for,” Dworak continued. “I think the means which they’re going about it is a little over the top. … I think there’s something to be said [about] being good sports. There’s also something to be said for free speech.”
But as long as the athletic officials are setting an “aspirational goal” and don’t discipline students, Dworak said he doubts any free speech rights are being violated.
In Minnesota, schools in the State High School League follow guidelines set in a manual called “Be a Good Sport.” Specific chants aren’t listed. Instead, it states that unsportsmanlike behavior includes disrespectful or derogatory yells, chants, songs or gestures. Booing, heckling, taunting, name-calling, profanity also wouldn’t be sportsmanlike, it says.
“When a chant becomes personal and attacks someone, it crosses that line of healthy fan behavior,” said league spokesman Tim Leighton.
Mike Grant, Eden Prairie football coach and athletic director, said students jeering at games generally isn’t a problem.
“If we see or hear someone picking out an individual and they’re being negative, we talk to them about it. We don’t make a huge deal,” he said. “We just say that’s not our expectation and if it continues, we remove them from the game.
“We probably have more problems with parents than kids,” he said.