January 31, 2010

Morris: Time to end fines for fans storming the court

College students and fans should be allowed a once-in-a-lifetime experience without penalty.

I DO NOT RECALL many specific moments of being a University of Wyoming fan growing up. But one does stand out. It was the time I joined other Cowboy fans rushing the basketball court at old Memorial Fieldhouse in Laramie, Wyo., on Dec. 23, 1965.

I was 11 and seated courtside as the final seconds ticked off in Wyoming's stunning upset of No. 2-ranked St. Joseph's. There were no TV cameras to record one of the great moments in Wyoming basketball history. The event was merely there to savor for the several thousand fans like me.

There were no security guards or any announcements made to warn fans of the danger that came with rushing the court. I only recall running onto the court, patting the back of my favorite player, Leon Clark, and for weeks bragging to my friends that I was part of the celebration.

My point is that college students and fans should be allowed the same once-in-a-lifetime experience without penalty. The SEC levied a $25,000 fine to South Carolina this past week for excessive celebration. Against SEC rules, USC fans stormed the court Tuesday in a wild and wonderful celebration of USC's victory against No. 1-ranked Kentucky.

"It's a heck of a dilemma. I've thought about it a lot since," Eric Hyman, USC's athletics director, said two days after the incident. "What do you do? How do you handle it? It was like a tsunami was coming. You could see the wave come down (out of the stands)."

What Hyman should do is convene SEC athletics directors to rescind a rule that never should have been put in place and has largely proved ineffective. The SEC remains the only major conference with rules that prohibit fans from celebrating on football fields and basketball courts.

"There's so much excitement, so much enthusiasm, so much energy, it was sort of a spontaneous eruption," Hyman said. "On the flip side, you've got to take care of the safety and welfare of your fans, your student-athletes, the visiting team, the officials."

Other conferences appear to be doing just that, without the looming threat of an unreasonable fine. When is the last time you have heard of an injury or ugly incident following an on-court celebration at an ACC basketball game?

Yet, nearly every road game that North Carolina and Duke have lost over the past 20 years has turned into an on-court festival by home fans. Clemson fans rushed the court following the Tigers win against fourth-ranked Duke at Littlejohn Coliseum last season and did the same after a win against 12th-ranked UNC earlier this season.

ACC schools are prepared for such incidents. Security guards provide a roped area on the sideline to help escort the game officials and visiting team off the floor. As at USC on Tuesday, fans at ACC venues are told not to run on the floor. Once that announcement is made on the public address system, any fan running onto the court takes all responsibility for possible injury.

Interestingly enough, an official with the SEC could not recall if there was an incident or a series of incidents that sparked the adoption of the league's excessive celebration fines. Rather, he said, the genesis of the policy was a national seminar for athletics directors and university presidents in 2003 concerning sportsmanship and fan behavior.

Even without data to back the need for such legislation, SEC athletics directors unanimously supported the institution of fines for storming athletic fields or courts.

My guess is there have been few injuries over the years. That is because schools are taking proper precautions in anticipation of the event. It is precisely why the SEC does not need to hold these heavy-handed fines - $5,000 for first offense, $25,000 for the next and $50,000 for any thereafter - over the heads of their conference members.

The best example of how preparation pays off occurred shortly after the SEC adopted the "excessive celebration" policy on Dec. 1, 2004. The following November, USC defeated 12th-ranked Florida at Williams-Brice Stadium. Adequate security prevented students from running on the field.

But there was nowhere near the spontaneity that afternoon as there was during Tuesday's celebration, nor was the football win over Florida nearly as historic as the basketball victory against Kentucky. The instances of such combustible energy exploding following a win are few and far between.

Since the SEC rule was adopted five years ago, the league has levied nine fines. This was USC's second violation, the other occurring after a win against No. 3 Kentucky in February, 2005. Kentucky leads the way with three fines, and Vanderbilt joins USC with two. Arkansas and Tennessee each have been fined once.

You see my point. Preventive measures are keeping fans from rushing the court, for the most part. But nine times over the past five years, fans just were not going to be denied. Students were heck-bent on being part of a once-in-a-lifetime celebration.

The on-court or on-field celebration following a significant win is part of the allure of college athletics. It is a rare opportunity for students and fans, who were a key part of the win through their cheering and support, to join with their team in celebration.

USC's win is one coach Darrin Horn, point guard Devan Downey and all of his teammates will treasure forever. The hundreds of fans who rushed onto the court to join the celebration will remember the moment the rest of their lives.

I can attest to that.

Related content



Sports Videos