Cheers & Jeers

January 29, 2015
Athletic directors want to showcase great sportsmanship. Fans just want to have fun. Combining the two requires communication, follow through, and creative ideas.
By Dennis Read

Dennis Read is Associate Editor at Athletic Management. He can be reached at: [email protected].

From banners to PA announcements to well-publicized policies, there are many different ways that high school athletic departments promote sportsmanship at their home contests. Tony Koontz, Athletic Director at Harrisburg (Ore.) High School, adds a little sweetness.

"I put a big bowl of candy suckers in front of the main entrance to our events," he says. "The idea is, if people have a candy in their mouths, it's a lot harder for them to holler at the officials or anybody else. And if I hear somebody acting up in the stands, I'll approach them, hand them a sucker, and say, 'Hey, I think you forgot to grab one of these on your way in.'"

The small candy has quickly become a big tradition in the school. "Sometimes a parent will grab a couple and say, 'It looks like this is going to be a two-sucker game,'" says Koontz, who picked up the idea at a conference of state athletic directors. "I'll smile and say, 'Take as many as you need.'"

Obviously, a candy bowl can't be the sole strategy in an athletic director's sportsmanship plan. At Harrisburg, it's a symbol as much as a silencer, and just one part of a comprehensive program. In the following, high school athletic administrators from across the country reveal their philosophies, blueprints, and game-to-game techniques for maintaining a positive atmosphere at their home contests.

When Phil Vaccaro first became Athletic Director at Reading (Mass.) High School in the mid-1990s, he thought he knew how to keep crowds under control. "I'd jump right into the stands at the first sign of trouble and start throwing people out," he says. "But then I'd go home very frustrated, wondering why I was even doing this job. I felt like I wasn't able to get through to anybody--I couldn't get them to understand why sportsmanship was so important."

Eventually he realized why his approach wasn't working. "My intentions were good, but my methods were not because I was dropping to their level of behavior," says Vaccaro, who now serves as Assistant Director for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association and the staff liaison to its Sportsmanship Committee. "The turning point came when I recognized that instead of always being negative and reacting to poor sportsmanship, I had to start teaching good sportsmanship."

He began looking for the positive among the more blatant negative. "I went up into the stands and gave our fans feedback, saying things like, 'You know, I didn't like the other team's cheer, and I really appreciate how you responded,'" Vaccaro explains. "We even had T-shirts made that said 'Sportsmanship--The Winning Point' and when I saw people in the crowd behaving in a positive manner, I'd throw one their way."

Steve Haines, Athletic Director at Seneca (Ill.) High School and a member of the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) Sportsmanship Committee, uses a similar approach. "When I hear a kid yell out, 'Great shot, Joe!' I'll go up and give him a high five because that is the kind of cheering I want to see at our games, whether it's for our team or the opponent," he says.

"It's taken some practice," Haines admits. "When you're supervising a game, your focus is on watching out for the negative and stopping problems before they start, which means the good things might go unnoticed. So I make it a point to catch people being positive at games instead of just watching out for those who are behaving poorly."

Vaccaro also did a lot of work on sportsmanship at Reading well before game time. To start, in settings from school-wide assemblies to casual conversations, he told students they faced a test during each and every contest, just like the athletes did.

"I explained that there are two events going on each night," says Vaccaro, who led Reading to several state sportsmanship awards during his nearly 20-year tenure. "The game of sport would be judged on the scoreboard, but the game of life would be judged by the fans' behavior. I would say, 'You can always walk away a winner after a game because it's about your character and your ethics and your sportsmanship. No matter what happens today, let's not lose two games.'"

He printed up cards outlining the expectations of spectators and plastered stickers that combined the Reading Rockets logo with the words "sportsmanship" and "character" throughout the campus, including on the many large metal trash barrels around the athletic facilities. "When visitors came to our venue and saw those barrels, it created high expectations for our athletes, coaches, and fans," Vaccaro says. "Were we perfect all the time? Absolutely not. But we were always working toward being perfect."

To reach parents, Vaccaro would elicit their help at preseason meetings. "The last thing I'd tell the parents was, 'I deputize all of you,'" he says. "'You are all an extension of our mission for sportsmanship in the stands. I would appreciate your help in making sure the reputation of our community is a positive one.' I asked them to come get me if they saw somebody who was not doing the right things at a game, and I would take care of it."

At Harrisburg, Koontz has also had success using the art of asking for assistance from fans, which helped the school win the Oregon School Activities Association's 2013-14 Sportsmanship Award for Class 3A/4A and the 4A Sportsmanship Award at the 2013-14 boys' basketball state tournament. "I've learned that saying 'I really need your help' works best," he says. "Most people will respond with, 'Okay, how can I help you?' So each year, I'll identify a couple of kids and boosters who are the leaders of their particular fan group. Then I'll ask them to help out by being a positive leader and staying within our guidelines."

At William Penn High School in Wilmington, Del., Athletic Director Sebrina Perialas weaves lessons on sportsmanship into a bigger picture. "We emphasize that sportsmanship is really about doing the right thing in any situation, whether you're a soccer player participating in a game, a National Honor Society member involved in a community service project, or a fan watching a football game," she says. "It's not just about cheering positively and respecting your opponent, it's about letting somebody get onto the highway in front of you or opening the door for a person who has an armful of groceries."

By working with faculty, Perialas was even able to insert sportsmanship into writing exercises in the school's English classes. "We'd present different scenarios that come up in sports and ask the students to write about how they would handle them if they were the official, head coach, or the opposing team's player," she explains. "The goal was to get them to think about things from another person's point of view and understand why sportsmanship was important."

While it is student fans that have the reputation for being rowdy and pushing the boundaries of good taste, in Haines's experience, it's typically easier to get them to cooperate than parents. One reason is that Haines sees the students all the time, and they're used to taking direction. But another factor has to do with underlying motivations.

"When kids are yelling things, they're usually trying to be funny or copy something they saw on TV," Haines says. "When parents yell and scream, they're being critical of somebody, whether that's the officials, the coaches, other parents, or even the kids. And often it's in very hurtful ways."

As a result, athletic directors are taking different approaches when dealing with problems among students as compared to adults. With students, Koontz has found that a quick look of disapproval is usually sufficient. If that doesn't work, a word from one of the student leaders will usually take care of the issue.

With parents, however, he's much more hands on. "If we notice an adult getting out of hand, or somebody reports a problem, either the assistant principal or I will go up to the area where they're sitting," Koontz says. "Sometimes, that solves it right there because the person knows they're being watched and they stop. If the behavior continues, I'll introduce myself and explain that if they continue to act this way, they'll have to leave the facility."

For those spectators who take such a threat as a challenge, athletic directors have to be ready to follow through. "I told one guy at a basketball game that if he wasn't going to follow our rules, he was going to have to leave," Koontz says. "He asked 'How are you going to make me?' At that point I took out my cell phone, told him 'This button is speed dial for local law enforcement,' and I pushed it. He was gone before they got there and he never came back.

"That part of the job is never easy," Koontz continues. "But when you make it clear that certain behavior won't be tolerated, everyone there will see it and get the message. If you say to yourself, 'It's not that bad' or 'He only did it once,' everybody will assume it's open season in your stands."

One tactic Vaccaro found extremely effective with parents was to relay to them what their kids thought. "One year, we did a video on fan behavior that won a state sportsmanship contest," he says. "We had some athletes on camera telling fans that they appreciated them attending games and would also appreciate them being positive because everyone out there--the players, coaches, and officials alike--were doing their best. The athletes explained that when they hear fans screaming negative things, it takes their minds off the game, even if the fans' words are directed at someone else. The parents especially seemed to buy into that message."

Once good sportsmanship is part of a school's culture, the conversation on it should not end. Especially important to discuss is the gray areas--starting with defining the difference between negative and positive cheering.

"A lot of people equate sportsmanship with being quiet and that's one of the hardest things to overcome," Haines says. "Sometimes I have to tell the kids, 'It sounds like a morgue in here. Let's hear some noise.' I want our fans to have fun. I want them to clap and cheer, and hoot and holler. I want them to make all the noise they can to support the players on the court--as long as it's positive."

How does he determine what goes over the line? Haines says that chants or comments that negatively single out an individual player or are critical of anyone are unacceptable. He also does not allow screaming during free throws in basketball or serves in volleyball.

"Yelling to be distracting is negative cheering, which is not acceptable in educational athletics," Haines explains. "That's taking things to the college or professional level. It drives our kids nuts because some other schools do it, but I tell them that's something the IHSA does not want us to do and that's why it's not acceptable here."

Without an outside entity drawing a clear distinction, Perialas has found that the line can be hard to determine. Her field hockey coach recently complained that fans were upset they weren't allowed to sing "Ole, Ole, Ole," a common field hockey cheer following a goal that is also used in soccer and ice hockey.

"I've always seen that as being negative--kind of like, 'I got by you, ole,'" she says. "But the coach convinced me that people in field hockey see it differently and that there is no negative connotation to it. Even though in my mind it's still not positive, I let our fans do it because it's part of the culture in that sport."

One area athletic directors don't hesitate to react to is berating officials. "There are some people out there who think it's part of the game to get on officials," Koontz says. "But I'm constantly hearing from our officials association that they're having trouble getting new members to join their ranks because of the way they're treated by fans. I ask people hollering at officials if they can imagine trying to have games without anyone officiating."

Vaccaro would allow fans a small amount of spontaneous reacting to a close call, but he drew the line at continued harping. "I'd let them do their two seconds of moaning and groaning after what they consider to be a bad call, but then it had to stop," he says. "I didn't want to hear, 'Oh, sure, now you call a foul,' a couple of minutes later. I'd shut that down and tell the person, 'I understand you don't like that call, but your actions aren't changing or helping the situation.'"

Sometimes, athletic directors can feel like the Lone Ranger in their efforts to promote good sportsmanship. But they should know that their rival administrators are often happy to partner with them on fan behavior issues.

"I really like the other athletic directors in our conference, and I don't want any of their schools to be thought of badly," Haines says. "We've had some continuity among athletic directors within the conference and that's helped us make a lot of progress. We all try hard to be on the same page about what's acceptable behavior and what's not."

As a veteran athletic director, Koontz tries to help others where he can. "At one point, there was a school in our league that we all seemed to have trouble with," he says. "It had a new athletic director almost every year and few rules or procedures when it came to sportsmanship. So when the next athletic director came in, I worked with him to help enact some policies and get things headed in the right direction."

In another instance, Koontz sent a letter to a superintendent when he felt the athletic director wasn't getting the needed backing from upper-level administrators. "I told the superintendent that his athletic director required more authority and assistance to help address the sportsmanship issues they were having," Koontz says. "The athletic director said it helped--he then got the support he needed."

For Perialas, cooperation was the key in avoiding what could have been an ugly scene at a basketball game. "We went to one school where the fans were pretty rough," she says. "The biggest problem, though, was that the bleachers were right up against the end line and the fans were getting in our kids' faces. I explained to the other athletic director my concern that something could happen, especially if one of our players went diving for a ball and ended up in these guys' laps. He was great about it. He made everybody move back a row and we didn't have any problems."

Whether it's partnering with peers, students, or adult fans, the solutions come back to being proactive. "There are no secret steps to sportsmanship," Vaccaro says. "It's a learned behavior and unless you bang people over the head with it every day, they're not going to get it. Some learn faster than others--but if they know you're committed to it, they'll all eventually come on board."

Big games against long-standing rivals and hot, crowded gyms full of raucous fans come to mind first when thinking of sportsmanship challenges. However, sub-varsity level games with only a handful of friends and family in attendance present their own kind of test.

"You have the youngest players who aren't quite as skilled, and you usually have the newest coaches and officials," says Tony Koontz, Athletic Director at Harrisburg (Ore.) High School. "And then you have parents who think that everything should be perfect."

Adding to the challenge is that athletic directors often have to rely on others to watch over sub-varsity contests. "My solution is to line up teachers I can count on to supervise a venue when I can't be there and grant them the same authority I would have," Koontz says. "The key is finding good people and giving them very clear instructions.

"I look for teachers who do a great job keeping control of the classroom," he continues. "I give them a name tag and ask them to be visible and move among the crowd. If they feel there's something going on, but they're not sure who's causing it, I tell them to go into that area and take a seat because that usually quiets everything down very easily."

Koontz then makes sure to talk with the game supervisor afterwards. "I especially want to know about anybody who caused a problem that didn't quite rise to having them kicked out," he says. "Then I'll be sure to talk with that student or parent before the next game to make sure it won't happen again."

What's the one voice fans hear more than any other during games? It's typically the PA announcer, and he or she can have a big impact, good or bad, on the behavior of your fans.

"A good PA announcer is worth their weight in gold," says Tony Koontz, Athletic Director at Harrisburg (Ore.) High School. "Ours does a great job at creating and keeping a positive atmosphere and treating both teams equally. I've been in a few places where the PA guy at a football game will be talking about how bad a penalty call was, and that doesn't help anybody."

Many state high school associations have sportsmanship handbooks that include sample scripts for PA announcers to follow. In addition, the National Association of Sports Public Address Announcers has many resources on its website:

One of the biggest factors in getting fans to exhibit great sportsmanship is the action of coaches. "There's a trickle-down effect based on the coaches' behavior," says Sebrina Perialas, Athletic Director at William Penn High School in Wilmington, Del. "If you have coaches who handle themselves in a positive manner, you greatly reduce the chance that you're going to have a problem in the stands. On the other hand, if coaches are yelling and screaming at officials, then the fans will do the same."

"When I do my coaching evaluations, sportsmanship is a big part of what I look at," says Tony Koontz, Athletic Director at Harrisburg (Ore.) High School. "I'm not afraid to write that Coach Bob needs to do a better job of treating officials well and lead by example in this area."

In certain cases, Koontz has gone as far as videotaping a coach during a game. "Sometimes coaches don't remember everything they say or do," he says. "It's not that they have amnesia, but they are so passionate about the game and get so involved in what they're doing, they honestly don't realize how they come across. So when I see a repeated problem, I'll tape Coach Bob, show him the video and ask him what he was thinking or feeling at particular times. Usually, he'll watch the video and say, 'I had no idea I was doing that.'"
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