Rivalry in the bleachers

Fans at high school hoops contests make taunting their sport of choice

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As Jeff Stewart missed a free-throw that would have won the game for the Bethel Park varsity boys basketball game on Tuesday, student fans of the opposing Upper St. Clair Panthers cupped their mouths and yelled "Stewart's crying. Call your mommy."

Across the gym, Bethel Park Black Hawks fans drowned an Upper St. Clair player in chants of what sounded like: "Ogre."

John Heller, Post-Gazette
Bethel Park students cheer on the varsity boys basketball team Tuesday by wearing sweater vests in support of the coaching staff, who favor the garment. They also yelled chants meant to intimidate players on the Upper St. Clair team, which lost in overtime.
Click photo for larger image.

Bethel Park managed an overtime win anyway, but not before Bethel fans screamed "This is our house," met by the Upper St. Clair fans' declaration: "Your team sucks."

The rivalries among fans of the boys varsity basketball teams at Upper St. Clair, Mt. Lebanon and Bethel Park are storied. Student chants range from clever jokes about their opponents' neighborhoods and incomes to more targeted and hurtful taunts about how a player looks.

At a recent Mt. Lebanon-Upper St. Clair game, for example, USC fans chanted: "We have buses."

Mt. Lebanon Blue Devils fans retorted: "We have sidewalks."

Fans of Upper St. Clair are known for waving dollar bills at players and fans from districts that are perceived as less affluent and shouting: "That's all right. That's OK. You're going to work for us someday."

At one recent game, Mt. Lebanon fans seized on a clothing choice by the Bethel Park coach and yelled "sweater vest" at him.

At that game, jokes flew back and forth about Bethel Park High School Principal Zeb Jansante's leaving his former post as principal of Mt. Lebanon High School in 2005, with some students donning wigs to mock his dark coif.

Costumes, face-painting and coordinated themes for games are also part of the fan frenzy.

But sometimes, the line between high jinks and hurtful gets blurry.

Twenty-five Bethel Park fans recently made quite a show at a game against Mt. Lebanon, wearing T-shirts with the words "Top 25" emblazoned on them. The shirts referred, of course, to a vulgar and highly publicized list that circulated last year in the community and on the Internet about female students in Mt. Lebanon. At the Jan. 9 game, each male Bethel Park fan in the numbered group had his own numeral.

When Mt. Lebanon cheerleaders were leading cheers, Bethel Park fans would yell "What's your number?"

And, at a recent game, a player was called "ugly" every time he handled the ball. Another boy, with close-cropped hair, was called "Rogaine" by some students. Others shouted the name "steroids" each time a tall, thin player handled the ball.

Such game taunts have "been around a long time," said Joe David, coach of Mt. Lebanon's varsity team. He played basketball for Upper St. Clair when he was in school, so he knows the storied rivalries. He recalls being heckled by cheerleaders from opposing teams. When he was a player for the University of Pittsburgh, he also saw how fans try to intimidate players and other fans.

"If that stuff bothers you as an athlete, you're not going very far," he said.

It's everywhere

"It's not just the South Hills. It's national," said Terrence Kushner, acting superintendent of Upper St. Clair, who mentioned fans of Duke University basketball, known as The Cameron Crazies, as some of the most vicious.

And now, fan behavior and security at games are under scrutiny after a Jan. 12 Mt. Lebanon-Upper St. Clair game, when, a Mt. Lebanon student says he was assaulted on the court by an Upper St. Clair school official after Mt. Lebanon fans stormed the court after being told not to. The two teams meet again Feb. 9 in Mt. Lebanon.

Dr. Kushner said security and procedures would be reviewed and, possibly, upgraded. A follow-up story appears at right.

While boys basketball games are not the only places for rowdy behavior -- some interviewed for this story mentioned football and hockey as other high-spirited fan bases -- it tends to have the largest crowds and fans from both schools in tight confines.

The issue is tough because many fans at high school games are still children. And no one would disagree that some of the behavior that passes for school spirit in the gym would not be acceptable in the classroom, where anti-bullying seminars are common in all districts.

Still, there are no statistics being compiled in the South Hills about fan behavior, good, bad or indifferent. In fact, there is little formal complaint.

"This is a problem, and an increasing problem, that probably needs some attention," said Tim O'Malley, executive director of the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League.

"It's not new," he said of the teasing. "But I think it's growing."

"Some [fans] don't realize what [they're doing] is unacceptable," said Amy Williams, athletic director at Bethel Park.

Mr. O'Malley said his group recommends that each school read the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League's sportsmanship motto at each event, although there is no mandate that the schools do so. Some districts, such as Mt. Lebanon, Bethel Park and Upper St. Clair, read their own, more extensive announcement at the beginning of games to ask fans to be respectful.

Each district is responsible for the conduct of its own fans, Mr. O'Malley said, with the high school principals charged with the ultimate responsibility for conduct, according to the PIAA constitution.

If the WPIAL hears complaints about a school's conduct, it can investigate and make recommendations for changes.

The WPIAL does not keep a catalog of complaints, but Mr. O'Malley echoed Dr. Kushner's impression that kids are mimicking college sports fans.

It's a zoo

Groups of rabid fans, such as the Crazies and the Oakland Zoo, which supports the University of Pittsburgh basketball team, can be brutal to the competition, picking on any physical attribute and making that behavior seem normal to teens who watch it.

Of course, if a school has been in the news, the fans are on it.

But "that's probably fair game," Mr. David said, even while adding that he doesn't support it.

When it comes to fan expression, it can be a fine line between what is silly and what is downright disrespectful. Officials who are too vigilant can be the target of complaints that they are quelling school spirit, Mr. O'Malley said.

"Good luck drawing that line," Dr. Kushner said. "It's tough."

The most administrators can do is to make decisions on a case-by-case basis, he said. Foremost is protecting the students from physical harm. And no one would think that fisticuffs or other physical contact is acceptable. But beyond that, it can get tough to police, he said.

Ms. Williams agreed.

Dr. Jansante said it was becoming more of a challenge to regulate because fan behavior is evolving.

"It's commonplace," he said of enthusiastic fans. "They just want to support the team and they think they have to get down and dirty to make that happen."

He said he didn't put up with any comments that are intended to humiliate someone. Some things that might be considered bullying in the classroom can be OK in a gym if meant to convey school spirit, he said, but not if it's offensive and pinpointed to an individual.

He said 99 percent of the chants are directed at the school rather than players.

Mr. David wouldn't confirm specific personal taunts directed at his players but said players appeared to not be bothered by them. He reminds his boys that heckling is a part of the game.

"Just play the basketball game and do not get caught up in anything," he tells them.

Yet he knows: "If [the fans] are really getting on you a lot, you must be pretty good, because they're trying to rattle you."

He doesn't always hear the taunts during the game, but he sometimes catches them while reviewing tapes.

He sat down this year with Athletic Director John Grogan, some other administrators and several Mt. Lebanon students who were identified as the leaders of some of the chants when they were identified as stepping over the line.

While he wouldn't repeat what they said, he described the conversation as a warning and the behavior stopped immediately.

Ms. Williams said the administrators at Bethel Park often hear in advance what the kids are planning to wear or do as their theme for the game and they'll ask them to tone it down.

In the case of the Top 25, the kids were asked not to use Mt. Lebanon students' names on their T-shirts. As long as it wasn't personal, she felt, it was acceptable. Dr. Jansante agreed, although he did not like the fans asking the cheerleaders for their "numbers." He was principal of Mt. Lebanon when the list was circulated.

Students in Bethel Park are asked to "cheer for our team, not against the other team," Ms. Williams said. Still, it's all subjective, and what one person finds offensive might just be fun to another, she said.

Dr. Jansante said a recent theme for the Bethel Park-Baldwin game was for the Bethel Park fans to dress in hip-hop clothes to mock their rivals. He warned students not to dress in a way that could be construed as racist.

It doesn't happen often but, Dr. Jansante said, he has removed groups of students from games. He also can ban them from activities, but said that was rare.

Mt. Lebanon police Lt. Ken Truver, who, along with other officers, has worked overtime security details during basketball games, said his department was on the watch for anything that rises to the level of a crime, such as sexual harassment.

Usually, his fellow officers start with telling the fans to stop. If that doesn't work, they'll eject them from the game. As a last step, they will make arrests, although there are no specific counts for how common that is.

Mom and Dad guilty, too

And it's not always students getting into trouble.

"Sometimes, the parents are involved more than the kids," Lt. Truver said.

The parental role is often overlooked, Mr. O'Malley said.

"Nobody wants to do anything about their child who happens to be involved in it," he said. "Everybody wants the school to fix it."

Parents simply must have discussions with their children about what is and isn't acceptable at games, he said.

"A lot of these young students, they're good friends off the court," Mr. David said. After the game, one group will say to the other, "You got us good."

But, as a rule, he said, students should not degrade each other. He believes there's no place for profanity.

Yet, Mr. David said, he does encourage students to be creative and funny in their rivalries, and to have fun with the concept.

"Use [your] intelligence. Make them laugh," he said.

Mr. O'Malley said teasing was ongoing. Back in the mid-1990s, when star basketball player Danny Fortson played for Shaler High School, rival fans from North Allegheny used to shout SAT scores during the games as a way to get Mr. Fortson off his game.

Of course, when Mr. Fortson made his move to the NBA, a first round pick in 1997 and now with the Seattle SuperSonics, he just might have gotten the last laugh.


Laura Pace can be reached at lpace@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.


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