Redwood Empire high schools try to clamp down on over-the-line taunting by fans

We haven't had a lot of violent confrontations reported at high school sporting events in the Redwood Empire. But our slate isn't clean, either.|

It was a chilly Saturday night, and attendance was modest when Montgomery hosted Campolindo in a recent North Coast Section boys soccer playoff game. But a group of about 15 Monty students made up for low numbers with high energy. The kids wore costumes and carried signs and cardboard cutouts into the stadium, and in addition to cheering on the Vikings, they heckled the visiting Cougars relentlessly during the game.

“Hey, 12, your cleats are ugly!”

“Cute gloves, 10!”

And one aimed at Campolindo player Seppi Ortman: “You're a guppy, Seppi!”

The taunts were personal, but delivered with humor. Even the Cougars couldn't help but crack an occasional smile.

But deep into the first half, the referee suddenly stopped play and approached Montgomery coach Jon Schwan on the sideline. One of Campolindo's top players, Rupert Dusauzay, is black, and members of the Campo coaching staff were concerned they had heard a racial slur weaved into the patter. “I'm OK with the cheering,” the referee said. “Just make sure it's nothing offensive.”

Montgomery athletic director Dean Haskins made a beeline for the student section and quietly reminded the fans of what constitutes acceptable behavior in the stands.

In truth, it seems unlikely the Vikings fans yelled anything racially derogative. That would have been out of character with the tenor of their cheering, and one of Montgomery's most popular players, goalkeeper Jordan Page, is African-American. But the lightning-fast response of the referee, and the Montgomery sideline, is indicative.

High schools can't afford to let fans venture into the realm of verbal abuse - or violence.

In gyms and on fields all over America, it's a real problem. A brief news survey turned up a 15-year-old who was shot in the leg outside of an Indianapolis gym on Jan. 22 as a high school basketball game concluded; a pair of hockey referees who were assaulted by parents after a hockey game in New Jersey on Feb. 7; and a chaotic fight after a basketball game in Ventura on Feb. 12.

“I went down last year and scouted Salesian,” Cardinal Newman boys basketball coach Tom Bonfigli said. “Salesian was playing El Cerrito, and in the stands two guys were squaring off. They had to stop the game and remove them from the gym. It was about a guy making comments about a player, another guy's son.”

We haven't had a lot of violent confrontations reported here in the Redwood Empire. But our slate isn't clean, either.

When the Petaluma boys basketball team played at Elsie Allen on Jan. 19, an adult Petaluma fan was reprimanded for words directed at a Lobos player. Steven Thrasher, the father of one Elsie Allen teammate, believes the fan had mocked the other player about his weight. When Elsie was scheduled to play at Petaluma on Feb. 10, some Lobos players reportedly considered boycotting the game.

(Elsie Allen coach Madison Lott referred comment to principal Mary Gail Stablein, who did not return phone calls or emails to The Press Democrat. UPDATE: Stablein responded later, and forwarded an open letter sent by the Lobos to the Trojans, which you can read here. )

Fortunately for everyone, the situation was resolved amicably.

“We had a great game when Elsie returned,” Petaluma High principal David Stirrat said. “Some of their concerns were from the past, and they were valid. Elsie Allen administrators and I met, we came to an agreement to go ahead and the game went off fine.”

That crisis was averted, but anyone who has spent time in the bleachers or stands at high school sporting events knows that student sections can ride opponents mercilessly, and that red-faced parents sometimes hurl invective at referees that they would never use in other public places.

Sometimes, perhaps, it goes too far.

“A few years ago when I was coaching at Ursuline, I had to remove my own fans from games occasionally,” said Jeff Paul, who now coaches Windsor girls basketball. “Like a girl would get shoved into a wall and there would be no foul and somebody would get hot, things like that. We had an incident like that this season in a freshman game, and there was a big whoop-de-doo about that. That kind of thing still goes on.”

At one basketball game at Santa Rosa High this season, a fan blasted an air horn and was quickly ushered outside by a school official. At a Cardinal Newman boys basketball game a few years ago, an opposing player left the floor woozy after hitting his head. Minutes later, a creative Newman student entered the gym on crutches and with his head wrapped in faux bandages, wearing a dummy version of the injured opponent's jersey. A Cardinal Newman administrator or teacher swiftly nixed the imitation.

And then there was “the past” to which Stirrat referred. On Feb. 1, 2013, as detailed in the Petaluma Argus-Courier, one fan at Petaluma High held up a sign that read “Dirty Sanchez,” an obscene slang expression that was directed at Angel Sanchez, Elsie Allen's top basketball player. Worse, some kids in the student section chanted “USA! USA!” at the Lobos, whose roster included a number of Latino players.

“You look at the wall of my classroom, and it's full of pictures of Mexican-American kids wearing Marine Corps dress blues,” Alan Petty, the former athletic director at Elsie Allen and still a history teacher at the school, told The Press Democrat. “To insinuate they're not Americans, that's ridiculous.”

Petaluma officials were appropriately horrified. Stirrat sent an email to all Petaluma High parents, expressing concern over the incident and outlining remedies. The following week, Petaluma teachers engaged students in a discussion of the taunting, and larger issues of discrimination. Many Petaluma High students wrote letters of apology to the Elsie Allen student body, which Stirrat and a group of teachers and students delivered to the southwest Santa Rosa campus.

Incidents like that led Steve Arrow to form Redwood Empire Battle of the Fans.

“It arose from talks with (Montgomery High) principal Laurie Fong and increasing concern about fan behavior, or student behavior,” said Arrow, a longtime basketball coach at Montgomery who now runs the freshman boys team. “Things had gotten fairly ugly, escalating over a five-year period. Laurie asked me if I could coordinate a program and try to improve student behavior, and the overall culture of student sections.”

Taking his cue from a similar group in Michigan and benefiting from a grant from Friedman's Home Improvement, Arrow set up an organization devoted to enriching the diversity of students at sporting events in the North Bay League and Sonoma County League, and to emphasizing positive rooting over negative verbal attacks on opponents.

Battle of the Fans, now in its second year, includes a sportsmanship competition among the 15 local “large schools.” This year's winners, recently selected, are Windsor and El Molino.

Arrow acknowledges the limitations of his program, but insists Battle of the Fans is making inroads.

“Before the Montgomery-Windsor football game, Windsor reached out to the Montgomery administration, and to students,” Arrow said. “They went over to the Montgomery section and passed out little necklaces, then held a post-game tailgate for both schools on the field. That's the kind of impact we're trying to make.”

Schools are doing more. Petaluma's basketball court is unique in that it has “end zone” stands situated behind the baskets. They're practically on top of the end lines, increasing the temptation to harass opposing players on free throws and out-of-bounds plays. Stirrat said the school closes those seats for most games. When open, they're restricted to adults.

“The other mitigant is to add staff, add teachers,” Stirrat said. “Students act better around teachers. They don't want to embarrass themselves.”

Of course, the sad truth is that offensive behavior at prep sporting events isn't limited to the kids. Students might make the most noise, but their parents can be equally abusive, or more so.

“In the NBL, we really encourage coaches to meet with parents in the preseason and explain, ‘This is what we expect,' ” said Jan Smith Billings, the league commissioner. “Now, you can't force parents to attend. But you can try to give them that information.”

No one can deny that the stands get a little rowdy at high school games sometimes. The question is whether this is anything new. Most coaches say it isn't.

Bonfigli, the Newman coach, remembers a basketball game at Petaluma in the early 1980s, when an acquaintance of the Trojans' star player crossed the line. Incensed by a foul call, or a non-call, the player's sister's boyfriend came over the scorer's table and assaulted referee John Alejos after the game.

Trent Herzog, the Casa Grande football coach, recalls warming up before a game at Santa Rosa High as a JV quarterback for the Gauchos in the early 1990s, and being on the receiving end of vicious razzing from the opposing students.

“I've never felt like it affected me,” Herzog said. “But I still remember it 20 years later, so maybe it did.”

The crowds of 2016 are frequently better behaved than that.

“I was at a Windsor boys game (two weeks ago),” Paul said. “They were playing Ukiah and I sat in the stands like I normally don't, because I'm normally on the bench. To be honest, everything was A-OK. I sat next to some Ukiah fans, and they were more about getting on their players for not working hard enough. They had the usual comments about the officiating. We'll never get away from that.”

A couple of factors have pushed students toward the extreme, though, or at least made the issue more complicated. One of them is the behavior of professional and college sports fans, and the athletes who play in front of them. As they get more raucous, they provide an unwelcome model for high schoolers.

“Have you seen what they do at (Arizona State), where they do crazy things to distract the free-throw shooter?” Herzog said. “Is that overboard? I don't know. But I guarantee high school kids will see that, and someone will show up in a speedo. You see it in football, too. Kids are different than they were 10 years ago.”

And that is partly because of the other challenge facing school administrators and coaches: social media. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram aren't forces of evil, but they can quickly take inter-school hostilities to another level. They also give rivals more fodder for taunting, as everyone knows a little more about everyone else's business.

Arrow cites a recent case wherein an Empire athlete, a senior, split with his girlfriend and worked through the breakup on social media. At his next game, some opposing students chanted the ex-girlfriend's name every time the kid touched the ball.

That's the sort of personal attack school leaders are trying to stamp out, along with racist and vulgar epithets.

But some question where we are drawing the boundary. The Ukiah boys basketball team recently played at Rancho Cotate, and it was a tough environment. Physical, intense game. Riled-up fans. But Ukiah coach Jeff Silva-Brown didn't think it crossed the line.

“As long as they're not calling you names that are profane or flipping you off, or shining lasers in your eyes, you know what? I think that part has been a little too contained,” Silva-Brown said. “I run into administrators at other gyms, and they say they don't like kids saying the ‘airball' chant, which is ridiculous. Back when I was playing, when the other team was introduced, people would pull out newspapers and pretend to read them. That's banned now.

“I think it's good in that we don't have as much bad behavior. But I think we have less common sense about it, too.”

Gradually, our high schools seem to be moving toward a more controlled and civil sports environment. Whether that is to be applauded or jeered depends on which side of the debate you're rooting for.

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