Basketball is unique among sports with regards to the distance (or lack thereof) between fans and players. This intimate setting, especially in high school and college basketball, encourages fans to creatively get into their opponents' heads.
Two incidents of unruly fan behavior last Saturday, however, have prompted action by institutions and conferences on opposite ends of the country. The question at hand: When does "creative" become "offensive?"
The first incident took place during West Virginia's matchup with Ohio State, when Buckeye guard Evan Turner was subject to vulgar chants from the Morgantown crowd, which also threw objects on the court during the game.
West Virginia coaches and officials responded swiftly with a letter in the school paper and an e-mail to all students pleading for civility .
"Many fans, including other student fans, have expressed their disappointment and embarrassment by the vulgar and profane language that have been coming out of the student section this season," wrote WVU's Ken Gray. "I urge you to stop this behavior. Remember your behavior overshadows the good behavior of our players on the court."
Later that night, BYU and San Diego State faced off in a key Mountain West Conference matchup. Some SDSU students dressed as Latter-day Saint (Mormon) missionaries, complete with white shirts, ties, and bike helmets.
The same dress-up act happened last season, but the students' chants of "You're still Mormon" when BYU put the game away did not. The sign asking BYU point guard Jimmer Fredette which wife gave him mononucleosis was also a new addition this season.
Such antics did not sit well with Sports Illustrated 's Seth Davis, who called the Aztec students "totally classless."
SDSU interim athletic director Don Oberhelman sent an e-mail to BYU fans in attendance at Saturday's game to apologize and promised future action.
"I don't condone or approve of some of the actions of our student section and apologize to anyone who was in attendance that was offended," Oberhelman wrote. "We will be addressing the student section as a whole and we have engaged a dialogue with student government and the leaders of the student section to improve our game atmosphere and ensure a safe and friendly environment."
The incident prompted a "high-ranking official" in the New Mexico athletic department to send an e-mail asking all students to avoid any mention of religion during Wednesday's win over the Cougars.
Even after the dust has settled on both these incidents, key questions for the future still remain:
1. How far is too far when it comes to fan behavior?
2. Do chants or gestures by fans based on race or religion constitute hate speech?
3. Can and will universities or conferences do more to bring respect and civility back to the student section?
1. Going too far means personal attacks. The attack need not be directed toward a single person to be considered "personal." If an entire institution represents an ethnicity or a religion, any remark degrading that race or creed is personal.
Replace the word "Mormon" in the SDSU chant with "Black" or "Jewish." Still funny?
2. The average student section member probably couldn't even define the term "hate speech," so the thought that their speech might be just that has likely not crossed their minds.
Even so, the act of negatively singling out something that makes a person unique, be it age, religion, race, sexual orientation, or whatever else is the very definition of hate speech. Both these incidents fall into this category.
3. While letters and e-mails may have a temporary effect, a prolonged return to civility among students likely will not come until conferences or the NCAA hits schools in the pocketbook.
A school that is levied a hefty fine for poor fan behavior is more likely to actively discipline students. If the SEC can fine South Carolina $25,000 for fans rushing the court after toppling Kentucky, what keeps the Big East from punishing West Virginia or the Mountain West from fining San Diego State?
In the end, universal answers to these questions must be found before an episode of foul fan behavior leads to more than just hurt feelings.