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Avoiding a Storm

March 11, 2014

The Southeastern Conference's rule imposing a fine up to $25,000 on any institution whose fans storm the basketball court didn't stop University of South Carolina students -- or administrators -- from running out of their seats following a big victory last weekend.

"Once I realized I was paying [the $25,000 fine] anyway, I ran down," President Harris Pastides reportedly said afterward. "I enjoyed every dollar."

All in good fun. But the SEC rule exists to prevent incidents like the one that occurred a few days prior at Utah Valley University, where a brawl broke out after students rushed the court and started throwing punches at a New Mexico State University player.

 

 

The fight got other leagues, including Utah Valley's Western Athletic Conference, thinking about creating policies similar to the SEC's. But conference commissioners and athletic directors admit that such a rule is difficult, if not impossible, to enforce when things get out of hand.

"I'm one of those people who believes, whether it's 500 people or 5,000 people who decide to come out of the stands," WAC Commissioner Jeff Hurd said in an interview, "there's not enough security to stop that from happening."

The WAC is not the only conference that plans to explore a penalty for court storming in the coming months. Pacific-12 Conference Commissioner Larry Scott said in an email that he and others at the conference level had already been considering changes, "but recent events have increased the urgency around safety."

The Pac-12 has had "a few instances" this year where fans entered the court before the end of the game, Scott says, as is typical during a competitive season. But they ended without serious incident.

"We always want our fans to enjoy the experience of cheering on their teams, but we need to keep everyone safe," Scott said.

Part of the difficulty of imposing such a rule is the spontaneity of the tradition: security has to be ready for an entire student section to storm, like at UVU, or even just a few. This past weekend at the University of California at Santa Barbara, a student ran down from the stands to confront the visiting University of Hawaii coach. Players and assistant coaches pushed him away and the student was escorted out (and then arrested).

 

 

Game officials can usually handle cases like that before they get out of control. But when more people are involved, whether and how to intervene becomes more complicated, said Patrick Nero, athletic director at George Washington University.

"The decision to allow or not allow students to rush the court is difficult for a school because there are safety concerns in both scenarios," he said in an email. "While storming the court brings safety hazards, it can at times be equally dangerous in trying to stop the rush if your building is not set up to stop the crowd. Historically, venues have seen safety issues when they have tried to stop the crowd, and many feel it is safer to allow the crowd onto the court."

University of Arizona Athletic Director Greg Byrne said in an email that timing is key.

"I’m OK with fans coming onto a court or field safely after the visitors and officials have cleared the field," he said. "Security needs to be held until that time."

As some sports pundits have observed, security is having to make that call more and more often. ESPN's Andy Katz earlier this season gently mocked the readiness of students to rush over pretty much any victory, from formidable Duke University to middling North Carolina State University. (Others took a more "live and let live" stance.)

"Flooding the arena floor with a surge of humanity was once reserved for special occasions. Now, it has become a weekly ritual," Katz lamented. "Storming the court has no rules, no bylaws, and apparently now, no limitations on what teams are deemed stormworthy."

GW is a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference, which does not have official court storming rules. Nero thinks one like the SEC policy would be "effective" in his conference, but A-10 programs already do a good job monitoring court storming, he said. Incidents are rare in the league.

The construction of GW's 5,000-seat arena already restricts student mobility, with barriers between the seats and the court. While a few students ran out after GW's win against Virginia Commonwealth University earlier this year, Nero said, officials managed to contain the rush.

"I think having the rule in place forces schools to come up with a plan to discourage court storming," Nero said. "However, as we have seen, it does not guarantee the court won't be stormed."

The SEC is the only conference that fines colleges for court-storming; a first-time violation is $5,000, a second is $25,000 and the fine doubles for any further incidents. Hurd and Scott declined to say what form any policy in their conferences would take; they plan first to consult with member athletic directors and presidents to see what makes sense, before regrouping in spring meetings to talk specifics.

The changes might involve modifying court arrangements, Hurd said, perhaps focusing on the courtside with benches and tables, and roping off certain areas. All arenas are set up differently, each university has its own security and on-call police systems, and officials can't anticipate every possible incident, so "there's no one-solution-fits-all" scenario, Hurd said.

"Ninety percent [of fans] that come down there, they really do want to celebrate. The 5 or 10 percent that want to cause problems, that's where the line has to be drawn," he said. "While it may not be totally preventable, it is something that we can't stick our head in the sand. Because it's going to happen again, some time, some place."

But trying to draw that line may be difficult. With a blanket rule banning court storming, University of New Mexico Athletic Director Paul Krebs said in an email, "I do believe you risk antagonizing your students."

 

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