At a recent high-stakes basketball game between Hopkins and Eden Prairie high schools, the competition spilled over into the stands when Eden Prairie's student section started a chant of "Food stamps! Food stamps!" -- a socio-economic slam that Hopkins players later reported evolved into use of the "N word."
Racial slurs have also been directed at black and Asian-American athletes from Edina, and Eden Prairie cheerleaders have been the targets of crass sexual taunts. At the college level, University of Minnesota basketball coach Tubby Smith recently sent an e-mail telling the students to stop their profanity-laced chants, saying, in part, that vulgarity and singling out players for taunts only reflects poorly on the Gophers.
Experts and observers say the call to "root, root, root for the home team" is being countermanded by the urge to demean, belittle and taunt the referees, opposing team and its supporters. Some chalk the rudeness up to a decline of civility in our culture, while others say it's part of a double standard about what's allowed once the school bell rings.
"If you act like this during the day, you get kicked out. But once school gets out, everyone seem to forget those rules," said Frank White, a longtime Twin Cities high school basketball official who's become a nationally known spokesman for sportsmanship.
Referees get the brunt of the abuse, but the behavior toward opposing fans and players has gotten worse with "very specific, often profane chants," said White.
"I've been at schools where derogatory remarks that have crossed racial lines have been made about specific opponents," he said. "There's so much more pressure to win these days and there seems to be much more lack of civility toward others."
Michael Josephson, founder and president of the California-based Josephson Institute's Center for Sports Ethics, pointed to current "political dialogue, which is full of vitriolic, angry, idiotic language. People get the idea that's OK, and there's a real danger in that."
Consequences, such as penalties and ejections, are in place to deal with sportsmanship issues among athletes, said Kevin Merkle, associate director for the Minnesota State High School League. "But the fans get to be a tough one," he said. "You get that mob mentality and sometimes it can be difficult to control."
The league has a set of expectations that fans are expected to follow, and each school is responsible for the conduct of its spectators. "Profanity, negative chants, booing, trash talk, name calling, personal attacks or other acts of disrespect are unacceptable and must be immediately addressed by school and/or tournament administrators," it says, in part.
High schools post sportsmanship guidelines in gyms and at athletic fields, and some even have the PA announcer read them before games.
That's a good start, Josephson said, but the challenge is to follow through. "If you don't enforce it, it becomes empty hypocrisy."
His advice for dealing with bad sportsmanship? "You start throwing out the people who are misbehaving. Trust me, the other 99 percent will get the message."
Laying down the law worked in Albert Lea, where the school system took steps 10 years ago to rein in inappropriate behavior. Now games begin with a warning that abusive fans will be escorted out of the building.
"We'll nip it as fast as we can," said Clay Anderson, the high school's activities director. "We won't stop the kids from yelling 'air ball' [after a bad basketball shot], for instance, but we don't allow it to become personal. There's no name-calling allowed."
Slurs and swearing
At the Eden Prairie vs. Hopkins game on Feb. 18, the "food stamps" chant offended some of the Hopkins fans enough that at the end of the game, school officials hurried out into the hallway to make sure that things didn't escalate. After the game, the players told Joe Perkl, Hopkins assistant athletic director, that they had heard the "N word" coming from the Eden Prairie fans, something the Hopkins supporters said they couldn't hear from the opposite side of the court.
Parents of Hopkins players also reported that their sons told them about hearing the slurs but declined to comment. An angry Eden Prairie student went on Facebook to chastise his classmates, noting the slur and saying, "I thought we were so far beyond that."
Mike Grant, athletic director at Eden Prairie, heard about the incident after the fact from his counterpart in Hopkins. "We take it very, very seriously," he said. "We're constantly talking to the students about how they represent the school."
He said that Eden Prairie athletes have faced insults, too, an issue he raised not to justify the racist behavior but as a way of pointing out "that this is big problem, a challenge that we ADs [athletic directors] face every place."
He also reminded the fans that "the ADs are communicating with each other all the time." Kids who think they've gotten away with something at a game often are surprised to find out that's not the case.
Perkl, who also happened to be at the Feb. 6 Gophers game that prompted Tubby Smith's e-mail, said he understands the coach's anger. The incident was "taking it to a whole other level," he said.
The student section started chanting "F--- Ohio State" and singling out individual Buckeye players for ridicule, the e-mail said.
"We want Williams Arena to be a tough place for visiting teams to play," Smith wrote. But, he continued, "adding vulgarity to our cheers does little to intimidate the opponent; it only reflects poorly on us."
Changing the behavior
Like Albert Lea, schools are taking action. In Minnetonka, for instance, students who've been shown to be leaders are asked to sit with their classmates to make sure the messages being communicated are positive ones.
"We want to remind the fans that we're there to give energy to our team, not to tear down the other team," said Elizabeth Zilverberg a senior who volunteered to serve as a role-model fan for the girls' hockey team. She also plays on the basketball team, which has given her exposure to the cheering situation from both sides. "We cheer loud for our friends but are respectful of the other team."
Josephson said he was surprised to get a call about abusive fan behavior from Minnesota, calling the state the "heartland of civility."
"If it's happening there, it's happening everywhere."