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Special Report: Rude sports fans giving new meaning to 'hostile environment'

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The biggest hits on a football field, might just be on civility.

A football fan spat on a University of Iowa student's father, who was wearing a UI shirt. Another fan chucked a full can of beer at an Iowa State University cheerleader's head, and others yelled obscenities from an apartment balcony at an ISU student in Iowa City for the UI-ISU football game in September.

Those are just a few examples of sports-fan behavior that many think has plummeted to the trashiest level in years.

"Everyone can cheer on their school and boo the other team, but I think it gets too personal with fans singling people out or calling them names, something that should have nothing to do with a football game," said Alexa Probst, a sophomore cheerleader at ISU. "I had to witness one of the cheerleaders on my squad getting a full beer can thrown at her head just because she was wearing an ISU uniform."

Mark Weisman, a sophomore running back for the Hawkeyes, said trash talking is about equal among universities, and it happens on and off the field. "They get some alcohol in them, and they start saying whatever they want," he said about the fans who draw attention to their rude behavior.

Poor sportsmanship has caught the attention of top UI officials. As trash talking degenerated early in the football season, President Sally Mason urged students to start behaving. Don't boo the opponents, she pleaded before the Hawkeyes played Penn State University.

Some fans believe rivalry between universities has pushed trash talking out of control. For example, before the Oct. 20 game against Penn State, UI fans wore t-shirts mocking the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal while taking a jab at Nebraska. Written on the t-shirts was, "I'd rather shower at Penn State than cheer for the Huskers."

Fans at Ohio State University and Louisiana State University had similar t-shirts, the Ohio State one aimed at the archrival it plays on Saturday, Nov. 24 -- Michigan -- and the LSU one aimed at the rival University of Alabama.

"It crosses the line for the people who were affected by Sandusky's actions," Lauri Peterson, a UI sophomore, said. "It isn't something to joke about in my opinion." Other examples of offensive college t-shirts include "ISU girls are ugly," "Ann Arbor is a Whore," and "YBSA: You bet your sweet ass I hate Ohio State."

Although the t-shirts are unauthorized, Joshua Berka, the assistant director of event management for the UI athletic department, explains a few ways a university can control the selling and wearing of the t-shirts. Police can shut down anyone trying to sell these t-shirts on campus. Police who see fans wearing an offensive t-shirt in the stadium can ask the offenders to leave.

Aside from apparel, fans say the main trash talking occurs on the way to the football game and during tailgating.

Iowa-Iowa State game particularly intense

While fans and athletes trash talk at every game, the long history of the Hawkeye-Cyclone rivalry and the Cy-Hawk trophy probably gives trash talk at that game a harsher edge.

Indira Alic, a sophomore at ISU, visited Iowa City this year for the Iowa-Iowa State game and dealt frequent harassment from UI fans.

"I got called a dumb whore by some guys from a balcony and everyone told me to go back to 'Lames'," Alic said. "I've seen some trash talk in Ames, too, but not nearly as much as when the game is in Iowa City."

But Caitlin Johnson, a UI sophomore, said the rivalry is equally bad in both cities.

"Last year when the game was in Ames, my dad was spit on by an Iowa State fan," Johnson said. It was unprovoked, she said. "Spitting on a 50-year-old man who has done nothing to an ISU fan is when trash talking becomes inappropriate."

Trash talking many times can be harmless joking, but Johnson and Peterson agreed that the drinking during tailgating leads to more intense verbal offensiveness.

Weisman, the Hawkeye running back, said in a phone interview, "Every university is pretty similar when it comes to the degree of trash-talking that occurs at games."

Kaitlyn Dornbier

Cheerleaders take abuse

One targeted group is university cheerleaders. Kaitlyn Dornbier, a junior Hawkeye cheerleader, believes simply wearing a cheerleading uniform exacerbates the trash talking from fans.

"We are one of the faces of the university and, being such, it gives people an outlet to express frustration and dislike with the institution or program as a whole," Dornbier said. "Without it, we would just be normal fans, but a uniform proudly displays 'I wholeheartedly support this team' and stands as a strong argument to opposing fans."

Jessica Carroll

Jessica Carroll, a senior UI cheerleader, said she has heard many creative comments from fans in her four years on the squad, most of the time commenting on a cheerleader's weight or appearance.

"Usually the most trash talking happens at away games," she said. "At home games, Iowa fans easily outnumber the other team's fans so we really do not hear much negativity. But at basketball games, the other team's fans are literally only a few feet away from where we stand, so the haggling doesn't stop for the whole game."

Carroll pointed to a UI football game in Tucson, Ariz., against the University of Arizona in 2010. Arizona fans threw trash and plastic bottles at the team and yelled obscenities. They missed, but the cheer team was given a personal escort. "Instead of walking straight across the end zone, we were instructed to walk around the entire field to avoid walking in front of their student section, because it was unsafe."

Carroll said that many times fans refer to them as cows, saying, "1,2,3,4. Get the cattle off the floor," or "Hey ladies, the grass ain't for grazing."

In one incident at a UI-ISU basketball game in Ames, ISU fans gave male UI cheerleaders a hard time by ridiculing their outfit or megaphone, and calling them "gay" and "pansies."

Sometimes UI fans go as far as blaming the cheerleaders for losing the games by making remarks such as "Well, I guess you girls didn't cheer hard enough; that's why we lost."

Mark Weisman

Weisman said trash talking also happens on the field, between the players, mostly the linemen.

"Players get in the heat of the moment and try to get into your head," Weisman said.

Here to stay

With trash talking occurring throughout the game, is there any way to prevent it?

Probst, Peterson, Alic, Johnson and Weisman said no. Even though they see it many times getting out of hand and say it could be taken down a notch, they do not see much the universities can do to stop it. Fans have the right to their opinions, they said. But when fans drink too much, confrontations often happen.

Nevertheless, Berka said the UI will keep trying to reduce hostility between teams. "We strive to always show hospitality to visiting fan by positive cheering and removal of degrading remarks," Berka said. "On game day we, as fans, need to treat them as guests in our home."

Members of the Hawks Nest student section yell the work "sucks" after each member or the Howard Bison basketball team is introduced Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. The UI Athletics Department has so far been unsuccessful at stopping the traditional cheer despite making suggestions for other things for the students to yell. (Brian Ray photo courtesy of The Gazette-KCRG)

The Hawk's Nest, UI's official student section of Hawkeye Athletics, is asked to play a role in the university's effort to improve sportsmanship, although it yells "sucks" after the names of visiting team members when starting lineups are introduced before a basketball game.

The UI hosted the Big Ten Sportsmanship Conference in 2011 where a number of the Big Ten fan support groups and university liaisons got together to talk about sportsmanship around the Big Ten.

Berka said a summary of the codes of conduct from the conference says fans should:

Cheer for their own team;

Avoid showing disrespect to opposing teams;

Be respectful to other's property.

If there is any hope for fan behavior this coming weekend it may be that Berka thinks fans usually are more hostile at the beginning of a season than at the end. "In the heart of the Big Ten season, fans stop worrying so much about the rivalry and start focusing more on our football team's actual performance," he said.

* Michelle Ngo is a sophomore journalism major at the University of Iowa's School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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