Column: Unruly fans could ruin the game for us all

Updated: March 7, 2014, 6:05 PM ET
Associated Press

(Eds: Should stand. With AP Photos.)

By PAUL NEWBERRY

AP National Writer

The incident was shocking, even given all the ugly behavior at college basketball arenas this season: a fan brazenly storming onto the court to confront Hawaii coach Gib Arnold during a game.

"I've never seen anything like that," Arnold, still looking a bit stunned, said afterward.

Maybe so, but it's clear that ill-tempered fans are getting bolder and bolder when it comes to what they'll say -- and even do, judging by the stunner Thursday night at Santa Barbara, Calif.

The NCAA and its schools need to buckle down on courtside security and work to tone down the nasty behavior in the stands before something really bad happens.

"This can be very dangerous," said Gil Fried, a professor and chair of the Sports Management Department at the University of New Haven.

With March Madness approaching, college hoops has already been marred by plenty of maddening moments:

-Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart received a three-game suspension last month for shoving a Texas Tech fan after tumbling out of bounds behind the basket. While Smart clearly crossed the line, the fan wound up apologizing for calling the star player "a piece of crap" and agreed not attend any more Red Raiders games this season.

-The same night Smart went off, Oregon guard Jason Calliste got into a verbal confrontation with at least one Arizona State student late in the first half of a game in Tempe, and another student was accused of spitting on two staffers of Ducks coach Dana Altman during halftime. That student had his season tickets revoked, according to the school.

-Last week, dozens of fans charged the court during an altercation that erupted right after the game between New Mexico State and Utah Valley. The melee was sparked by a New Mexico State player hurling the ball off an opponent's leg in apparent frustration from the Aggies' heated overtime loss to their conference co-leader.

-Now, more ugliness. While Arnold was arguing with the officials, a young man wearing a Class of `14 T-shirt and believed to be a student at UC Santa Barbara, charged out of the stands to get right in the coach's face. The fan was shoved away by two of Arnold's players and quickly retreated to the stands. He was escorted out of the building and arrested.

UC Santa Barbara apologized to Arnold on Friday and said it was reviewing the incident and "solidifying event protocol" in hopes of preventing a repeat.

"You would hope security would be a little bit better, to where a guy can't get down on the floor like that," Arnold said in a television interview. "But something unexpected like that -- the guy was wasted and in a different world. You can't control crazy. That's why they're crazy."

Indeed, there's no way for a school to ensure 100 percent safety at any sporting event, and basketball is especially problematic because of the proximity of fans to the court and the lack of any barriers between the stands and the playing area. Outside of putting up some sort of fencing -- and no one is suggesting that as a serious option -- it's basically impossible to halt someone who is really intent on getting to the court.

But the incident at Santa Barbara did seem to reveal a lack of adequate security, which could be more of an issue at smaller schools that don't have a lot of wiggle room in their budgets. The fan got to the court without the least bit of trouble, and there was never any sign of an officer until he had already sprinted back to his seat. In fact, it could have been a lot worse, because the Hawaii players showed commendable restraint in protecting their coach but not turning the incident into a full-blown donnybrook.

Mark Conrad, director of the sports business program at Fordham University, said teams and schools have actually made great strides to cut down on bad behavior, noting it used to be commonplace for thousands to storm the field of play after important wins, with little consequence for their actions. These days, there are strict codes of conduct, with fans running the risk of everything from arrest to being stripped of their season tickets when they violate the rules.

"What teams and schools are doing is trying to reduce the risk," Conrad said. "You're not going to entirely eliminate the risk. But if a breakdown occurs, there's got to be some sanctions. People may think about it the next time."

The NCAA had no comment on the latest incident, calling it a conference matter.

That won't do any longer.

Everyone needs to sit down after the season -- assuming we make it through without anything else happening -- and come up with some additional measures to deal with unruly fans. It might be setting up more family sections closer to the court, and pushing students farther away from the action. It might be coming up with some sort of financial tool to supplement the security budgets at smaller schools.

Again, it's time step up before something really bad happens.

That goes, too, for those folks in the seats.

"Maybe it's time," Fried suggested, "for a coalition of fans to take the game back."

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Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963


Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press

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