Rivalry shouldn't bring out the worst in fans

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 23 2010 11:45 a.m. MST

PROVO, Utah — It's fourth and three. Tie game, thirty-seven seconds left. The ball is snapped and the quarterback fires off a quick pass to the left. Spinning around a defender and hurdling another one, the tight end leaps into the end zone for a touchdown and the screaming adoration from his side of the stadium.

The opposing fans are not so gracious. They begin booing, taunting and even hurling garbage onto the field.

Whether this is BYU vs. Utah, Ohio State vs. Michigan or Texas vs. Oklahoma, it's an ugly picture, yet it's far too common in stadiums and arenas across the country, say sports officials and civility experts.

"We see people who are completely civil at work and home, then at sports they completely lose their mind," said Jarrod Chin, director for Violence Prevention and Diversity at Sport in Society, a Northeastern University center. "We need to understand that civility has to be inclusive. You can't just put your morals and values (on hold) because, 'Well it's sport, it doesn't apply.'"

Civility is especially needed for a rivalry like Utah versus BYU as they face off this Saturday in the long-awaited football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

"I think overall the rivalry is good, and it's in good fun," said Dale Hendrickson, a Cougar fan and Cougar Club regional contact in Thousand Oaks, Calif. "As long as you … stay grounded when it comes to vulgarity and violence, it's fun. (Rivalries are) what make the sport popular."

Utah's in-state football rivalry has been a source of banter and belligerence since 1922, with the winner's title being passed north and south for years.

"Sometimes when one team was dominant … it was just kind of accepted," said Keith Henschen, a retired U. sports psychology professor who now works with the U.'s athletes. "But when they're close, (the rivalry) gets worse. That's not unusual because we know through the sociological research that rivals that are in close geographical distance many times have more problems. People just can't let it go."

Not the coaches or players, he clarifies, it's the fans who "carry it to the extreme."

Yet a rivalry doesn't have to be ugly. Nancy Phibbs, 81, has been rooting — passionately but politely — for the University of Utah ever since she attended as an 18-year-old freshman.

"I'm past dedicated," she laughs. "I'm obsessed. I've got stuff on my car and in my house. If I weren't so frightened, I'd get a tattoo."

Her dedication is obvious, not obnoxious, and she would never be the one hurling insults or hot dog wrappers.

"We're respectful with other fans, and I think that's only right," she said. "I don't like people who name call and who make stupid comments. We're rooting for our schools and that's terrific. I really think if we are civil, which seems to be going out of style, then it makes the games a lot more fun."

Yet despite civil fans like Phibbs, there are those few who crave negative attention.

Like the Utah players and fans in 1993 who tried to tear down the goalposts in then-Cougar Stadium, or the BYU student who jumped onto the field in 1999 to tackle a flag-waving Utah cheerleader. In 2009, Y. quarterback Max Hall went on an anti-Utah rant after explaining that the year before his family had been accosted by Utah fans. Also in 2009, U. coach Kyle Whittingham's wife and son got into a brief scuffle with BYU fans. There's also the annual, and unreported, shoving and bad mouthing present at most games — behavior that should embarrass those participating, said University of Utah spokeswoman Liz Abel.

"It reflects on their institutions if they're behaving in a really bad manner," she said. "I would think that would be the last thing they would want. They want people to respect their institution … but when they do something (uncivil) the exact opposite comes across."

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