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Cleaning a Toxic Environment

A new working group hopes to improve fan behavior at Division III sporting events

Picture a Division III women’s lacrosse game on a Tuesday afternoon: Only a few dozen people are in attendance and the crack of lacrosse sticks rises over the murmurs in the crowd.

Until the shouts pour in from the stands, that is.

One parent is angry about her daughter getting tripped and tumbling to the ground. Another parent fires back, defending his child. The screaming escalates, amplified by the relative intimacy of the contest, but no one at the game has the training to step in and to stop the tumult. 

Such scenes have grown increasingly common in Division III. Berry College Athletics Director Tom Hart says about 90 percent of behavioral issues he has to deal with occur in the stands, not on the field. Something needs to be done, administrators say.

The Division III Sportsmanship and Game Environment Working Group was created this year for precisely that reason. At the Division III Issues Forum at the 2015 Convention, 78 percent of respondents to a straw poll indicated that fans and parents are the cause of most behavioral problems at games. So the working group is trying to find ways to diffuse tense situations in the stands so that athletes will remember their time on the field for the right reasons.

“One of our biggest challenges is the midweek game with about 100 people there,” says Gary Williams, working group chair and director of athletics at Wittenberg University. “The irony is that it’s not controlling the masses; it’s controlling a few who become loud and then end up dictating how people feel about their experience.”

The working group held its first meeting in late May in Indianapolis and plans to survey athletes to determine what their ideal game environment looks, sounds and feels like. Athletes who are working group members have indicated they want a raucous environment, but not a vitriolic one.

To ensure that becomes the standard, the group wants to provide resources for administrators who are tasked with game management. Conflict resolution often isn’t in the skill set of an athletics director, athletic trainer or sports information director, but they can still be thrust into that situation. So the working group wants to arm them with tools and training that empower them.

To get there, the working group will meet with several Division III committees and another that oversees Association-wide issues. It has already convened with the Division III Championships Committee and this summer will gather with the Division III Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and compare notes with the NCAA’s Committee on Sportsmanship and Ethical Conduct. That will lead to a robust discussion with members at the 2016 NCAA Convention that will give the group a clear direction for moving forward. 

One challenge the group anticipates will be in creating a baseline expectation for acceptable behavior. What is considered suitable at a basketball game in the Northeast might not be acceptable at a soccer match on the West Coast. Championship events provide a blueprint – behavioral incidents are rare, yet crowd enthusiasm and intensity remain high. The working group would like to see regular-season contests mirror that environment.

Athletes are enthusiastic about the committee’s charge. Despite graduating and starting his marketing career in May, SAAC member and former Rhodes College football player Justin Toliver is taking the time to be a part of the working group. He recalls walking to midfield as a team captain before games, shaking hands and knowing that both sides would show respect. But he was less certain about what would transpire in the stands.

He hopes to help fix that.

“There is no message to parents and fans who have a lot of emotion invested,” he says. “It’s going to be interesting to see how we can find a way to implement these plans so that everyone hears it and respects it.”

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.