Sports In Briefs

Sports rants from an industry exec who maintains the passion of a fan

South Carolina and the $25,000 lesson

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The South Carolina Gamecocks basketball team knocked off #1 and previously unbeaten Kentucky Tuesday night, setting off a raucous celebration that saw fans storm the court.

One day later, South Carolina’s coffers were $25,000 lighter, the result of a Southeastern Conference fine.

Gamecock fans exuberance cost the program $25,000

It turns out the SEC has a policy in place to levy progressive fines if fans at a basketball or football game rush onto the playing field during or after a game. The first such incident earns a $5,000 penalty, which increases to $25,000 for the second offense and $50,000 for the third offense.

South Carolina guard Devan Downey, who implored fans to join the celebration, was unrepentant after the game when asked about a potential fine: “I’m pretty sure the university’s got some money somewhere to pay the fine.”

The prevailing attitude when a school is fined for rushing the court is mild surprise. In a world where the sports pages are invaded by offenses of varying nature, exuberant celebration appears to be the least of our worries. After all, the same day the fine was announced, the NBA saw fit to suspend two players, including superstar Gilbert Arenas, for drawing guns on each other. So a few fans got excited because of a landmark win ignored the “Authorized Personnel Only” signs. Big deal, right?

Not exactly.

People casually point to the SEC’s rule as being instituted just weeks after the infamous “Palace Brawl” that saw Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons players fight with fans at the Palace at Auburn Hills. But the rule was actually put in place as a result after a University of Georgia fan was accused of punching Florida Gator Matt Walsh after a basketball game.

The policy was quickly put in place for the safety of all parties involved – although the rule falls under the conference’s sportsmanship guidelines. To date, the SEC is the only conference to have such a rule.

And there’s a damn good reason to have such a rule. Let me rephrase that: There’s a hollow reason to have the rule – it’s called public relations. But there’s a far better reason to enforce the rule, and we’re seeing more and more evidence of it.

The Palace Brawl is probably the most egregious spectacle to date, but it’s hardly an isolated incident, nor is the trend limited to pro sports. A year before the SEC saw fit to pass the rule, Nebraska football player Kellen Huston knocked out a celebrating Missouri fan with a sucker punch. Gators basketball player Brandon Powell threw a punch at a Vanderbilt fan who had stormed the court after the Commodores knocked off then-#1 Florida in 2007.

Blount (white stocking cap) being restrained by an Oregon coach

More recently, we watched as officials restrained Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount when he tried to engage several fans, just minutes after Blount punched a Boise State opponent. Even Tuesday night, rumors circulated that Kentucky player DeMarcus Cousins punched a South Carolina fan during the mayhem.

Not every example of fan pandemonium results in violence. Sometimes, it’s just tedious, as it was when Texas Tech fans rushed the field three times before the game was even over in the Red Raiders’ upset of Texas in 2008.

In fact, one of the most famous plays in college football history is considered so in part because of extra people on the field. The Cal-Stanford game in 1982 ended with “The Play”, a series of Cal laterals and Kevin Moen scoring the game-winning touchdown… as the Stanford band scattered from the playing field and end zone.

But more and more, fans on the field or the court can lead to nothing good.

Emotion runs high in athletic contests, and occasional violence can be the result of such passion. When violence occurs between participants, it is quelled quickly and punishment is meted out. It’s called sports justice.

But the more we blur the line between the field and the stands, the more we also blur the line between player and fan. It’s not so much that fans become players, but by invading the players’ realm, they subject themselves to whatever might happen on the field of play. And from here on the couch, any fan that crosses that line, be it alone or with thousands of his closest friends, deserves just about whatever happens to him.

Besides, what can reasonably be expected from this equation:

Several frustrated visiting players who just suffered a crushing defeat, plus

Thousands of delirious fans celebrating a victory, minus

Security necessary to shield the players from the fans or provide safe passage off the court or field?

It’s a recipe for disaster, one that someday will make the Palace Brawl seem like a kindergarten tiff.

Ultimately, precautions must be proactive. A few senior citizens in yellow jackets or a simple rope line, as was used in South Carolina, can’t hold back a wave of fans, no more than they can hold back waves at the shore. More substantial barriers between fans and the playing surface are out, since they devalue all those big money seats down below.

Which means it comes down to security. And what is security but manpower and training? If an athletic department wants to evaluate this by the numbers, they’re one day going to realize that increased security for an hour or two is far less expensive than increasing fines. Or escalating incidents.

Sure, maybe it’s a sign of the times. We’ve taken an innocent act of pure jubilation shared by a team and its fans, and we’ve injected trepidation and fear and violence.

So more conferences need to follow the SEC’s lead and institute rules. And athletic directors need to take this more seriously than South Carolina’s Eric Hyman, who joked that fans were giving him $1 bills to pay the fine. And fans need to remember they’re fans, they bought a ticket to revel in the stands.

Stay where you belong, so monumental victories can remain memorable because of the triumph, not because of what they spawned immediately afterward.

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Written by sportsinbriefs

January 28, 2010 at 1:15 am

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