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Rivalry shouldn't bring out the worst in fans

Published: Friday, July 31 2015 8:31 a.m. MDT

Fans of BYU celebrate a touchdown against UNLV during the first half of play in Provo, Nov. 6, 2010. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News) Fans of BYU celebrate a touchdown against UNLV during the first half of play in Provo, Nov. 6, 2010. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News)

PROVO — 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.'"

Utah Fans (from left) Reuben Barela, and Ryan Stipanovich along with others cheer the University of Utah Ute football team after they arrived back home in Salt Lake City, Utah with a stunning 31-17 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in 2009 (August Miller, Deseret News) Utah Fans (from left) Reuben Barela, and Ryan Stipanovich along with others cheer the University of Utah Ute football team after they arrived back home in Salt Lake City, Utah with a stunning 31-17 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in 2009 (August Miller, Deseret News)

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."

During Saturday's game, fans can report inappropriate behavior to the U.'s event staff anonymously via texts and the school will have extra security, Abel said. The U.'s athletic director is also sending a letter to all season-ticket holders asking that they behave civilly and encourage others to do the same.

After all, a lack of civility makes the game nearly unbearable for some, like Sam Gubler, a BYU season ticket holder who decided he won't travel from his home in Wellsville to Saturday's game.

It can be rough playing at the opponent's home and he'd rather not deal with the heckling or taunting. He knows Utah fans feel the same way when they come to Provo.

"To me, it's easier not to go, which is too bad," he said. "My way of dealing with it is by avoiding it to some degree. If someone starts yelling at me, and gets excited about something … I have a tendency to want to yell back at them. So I try to avoid it."

Hateful speech and fighting behavior at the games puzzles people like Mike Middleton, executive director of the Cougar Club, who points out the two schools' administrators and athletic department personnel frequently work together and often have friendly relationships.

"The people who are the closest to both programs are cordial and respect each other; I see the same thing with the players and the coaches," Middleton said. "But it's unfortunate that there are fans who are uncivil and rude and want to fight somebody after the game. It just seems like they're fighting a fight for two teams who, after the game, are shaking hands."

For the coaches, players and staff, the focus is on competition and playing their best — not surviving a battle, as fans often depict.

"Sometimes people make analogies to sport as war," Chin said. "When we're looking at sport as war we have a really distorted perspective on it, especially with us being in two wars currently. We know the sacrifices families are making, soldiers are making."

If fans considered the men and women serving in the military and the "true cost of war," Chin said, hopefully they'd drop the 'battle' and 'war' lingo and instead, correctly call them what they are — games.

While some may label civility a trivial or minor issue, repercussions from rude behavior are dramatic, experts explain.

"The one thing that we know about incivility for sure is that it has a way of escalating into physical violence," said P.M. Forni, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who travels the country speaking about civility. "Many acts of physical violence … have their origins in a slight, an act of rudeness that spirals out of control."

Forni sees this in homes, schools, and the workplace, but especially in stadiums and arenas where baseball games end in drunken brawls, soccer matches are marred by the death of a player or fan and parents of little leaguers end up screaming at each other or the referees.

Such behavior is especially damaging to children, who are modeling their choices on the actions of their parents and other adults.

"If we're talking to our children, preaching things about nonviolence, but when it comes to sports, if we lose all objectivity and fight in the stands, we've lost," Chin said.

Forni encourages teaching children about civility from a very young age, in word and deed.

"When we teach our children good manners, we give them the training wheels for altruism," Forni said. "When we teach good manners, we teach our children self-restraint."

And if that teaching is successful, those children will someday be the ones playing with dignity on college teams while their peers cheer respectfully from the stands.

"Sometimes we think of manners as which fork to choose for the salad, but in reality, when we talk about good manners and civility, it is how we treat one another in every day life," Forni said. "What's more important than that?"

Civility suggestions from sports fans and psychologists

Leave the trash talk at home

Remember the game is for entertainment and a time to shed stress, not gain more by being hostile toward the opposing team, coaches and fans

Root for your team, don't denigrate the other team

Use appropriate, respectful language

If you go with a child, look for opportunities to teach him or her about appropriate and inappropriate behavior

When confronted by a hostile fan, politely state the problem as you see it, inform them about how their behavior affects you and then gently request a change of behavior

See the competition as a game, not a battle or war

If someone around you is being unruly, work together with other fans to encourage proper behavior. Peer pressure may help curb inappropriate language and actions.

If you know you can't handle your emotions at the game, consider staying home and watching it on television

e-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com

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