When racist bullies start acting out at high school sporting events, they need to be confronted and controlled. That may seem so obvious that it doesn't need saying. The question of who should do the confronting and controlling, however, is a more complicated call.
Set aside, for the moment, another obvious observation: that we shouldn't have to deal with such behavior at all. Whether the racist taunts being reported recently come from students or adults, they suggest that something awful and ugly lurks in some Minnesota schools and communities. That's not exactly news, but it is a fresh reminder and a disturbing one.
Two cases have gotten particular attention recently: a boys' hockey game between St. Louis Park and New Prague last month, and a girls' basketball game between New Prague and Robbinsdale Cooper that same day. The racial taunting at those games drew attention because officials in both the Robbinsdale and St. Louis Park districts have served notice that their student athletes will not compete against New Prague at least for the remainder of the school year.
And Wednesday, students in the New Prague fan section at the state high school hockey tournament were caught on camera making what appeared to be "OK" hand gestures, which are sometimes associated with white supremacy groups.
That New Prague's name keeps coming up in these incidents should not be taken as evidence that the problem is limited to that community. Reports of racist incidents are distressingly common in schools and communities across the state. To its credit, the New Prague district says it has engaged an outside firm to investigate the basketball incident, and promised "prompt and appropriate action" if investigators substantiate the reports.
The superintendent, Tim Dittberner, has acknowledged the incident involving St. Louis Park and apologized for it. And he has asserted that those making those hand gestures at the state hockey tournament didn't know what they signified.
New Prague's investigation, and the promised boycotts by the Robbinsdale and St. Louis Park districts, are examples of school authorities' taking action at the local level. Local initiatives are the approach recommended by the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL), the organization that oversees high school sports and other activities.
The league's bylaws prescribe standards of conduct for student athletes, specifically barring behavior that is abusive or discriminatory. But they give little guidance regarding the conduct of fans in the stands. The league now says it will work with student groups to develop a model code of conduct to cover "all aspects of participation in activities," specifically including spectators.
In a letter to schools last week, MSHSL Executive Director Erich Martens and Bob Driver, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals, stressed that schools are responsible for fan behavior at events. They reminded school officials that they have the authority to eject unruly fans from games and bar them from attending games in the future. Violators could be charged with trespassing.
"This is a powerful tool for dealing with inappropriate behavior by adults, visitors, or other individuals," their letter said.
Leaving the nettlesome issue of fan behavior in the hands of individual schools has its appeal, but it comes with a self-evident drawback. When enforcement of standards breaks down, and a competing district must choose between sitting out games or allowing its players to endure racist abuse, the players lose either way. They should not have to forfeit games — and potentially tournament play — for the privilege of being treated with respect.
If anyone deserves to be penalized for inappropriate fan behavior, it is the misbehaving fans themselves or the schools that fail to enforce proper standards. So it makes sense to us that the MSHSL should explore tougher rules to hold schools accountable.
That said, fans who hurl racist insults at opposing teams are evidence of something deeply wrong in our culture — and some of our schools. There is plenty more evidence, too — from racial slurs in Minnetonka to racist videos in Prior Lake and Edina.
New rules from the High School League regarding sports might treat some of the symptoms, but they won't heal the sickness.