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By Marissa DeCuir
Special for USA TODAY
November 1, 2007
BATON ROUGE — LSU football fanaticism reached seismic proportions in 1988, registering on the university geology department’s seismograph after a game-winning touchdown.
But in the years since LSU fans shook the earth, part of the regular crowd of 92,000 is getting a reputation for something beyond being loud. Some became so wild that the school’s band altered its routine the past two seasons to prevent students from chanting profane words in rhythm with two of its songs, including the popular Tiger Rag.
“It reflects poorly on the university when there is any kind of derogatory language coming out of our stands in a unified manner like that,” said Herb Vincent, LSU senior associate athletics director.
Profane chants are nothing new in college athletics. From the Rocky Mountains to the Great Lakes, sports fans have filled venues with vulgar and abusive language and gestures.
But colleges across the USA are cracking down on stadium behavior. Administrators want their universities to be viewed positively and students, as well as all fans, to act with dignity.
Schools also don’t want children hearing foul language, let alone people watching on television. And they are taking steps to stop it:
•Virginia Tech, which started a program called “Hokies Respect” in 2003, no longer allows its band to play a song to which students yelled sexually suggestive chants. Athletics director Jim Weaver said the gestures that went along with the cheer caused him to stop the song. The school also sent e-mails to students and season-ticketholders promoting good sportsmanship. A 30-second Web video on abusive chants tells fans, “Don’t be a jerk!”
•Texas has a campaign called, “Texas Fans Make Us Proud,” and tells fans, “Watch your language.”
•Kansas is trying to combat a profane kickoff chant by reaching out through the media and asking the students to regulate themselves, said Jim Marchiony, associate athletics director.
•Vulgar chants directed at Navy players last month by a group of Rutgers football fans resulted in school President Richard McCormick issuing an apology to the academy for “disrespectful and disgraceful behavior.”
•Florida instituted a code of conduct for Gators fans five seasons ago. Since then, a handful of fans are ejected from each home game because of disorderly conduct, anything from spitting at someone to shoving people to using profane language, said Capt. Jeff Holcomb of the university’s police department.
Natalie Gonzalez, Florida coordinator of operations and facilities, said the school implemented its “Gator Fans Code of Conduct” to treat visiting fans with respect.
“A college game-day experience isn’t as good without visiting fans,” she said. “I’ve been to some stadiums that I don’t want to go back to because of the way I was treated.”
Football is not the only problem area.
•Boston University banned cursing from its hockey arena in 2006, then took away ticket privileges for nearly 20 students that season for their language. “I can’t tell you it’s perfect,” athletics director Mike Lynch said. “But the behavior in the stands has gotten a lot better.”
One chant has changed from “(expletive) ’em up” to “Rough ’em up.”
•Washington implemented a zero-tolerance policy for foul language in its basketball arena by putting familiar faces to work. “Our coach (Lorenzo Romar) is not afraid to tell them to knock it off,” said Scott Baebler, assistant athletics director. Membership in the school’s “Dawg Pack” fan group comes with weekly reminders about sportsmanship and no profanity.
Not all the efforts have had the intended effect. At Michigan, “We’re still working on the language thing,” acknowledges assistant athletics director Bruce Madej.
At Colorado, scoreboard messages and mass e-mails targeting football fans about profanity have not helped, said senior Greg Rosenthal. “People grow to accept that it’s part of the college football experience. It comes with the territory.”
The effort to stop Virginia Tech’s chant only made things worse, said graduate student Jenny Mueller. “I’m going to keep yelling it at every game,” she said. “And louder.”
One alumnus expressed in a letter to the school newspaper that he would not donate to the athletics department until the censorship stopped.
“I’m not naive enough to think they’re going to stop right away,” Weaver, the Virginia Tech AD, said. “That’s outside my control.”
And some at LSU rail against the change. “Those are big traditions,” graduate student Juan Tanca said. “If they stop these chants, new ones will come.”
Alcohol in the mix
Vile language in such a setting is sparked by a number of things — often alcohol — said Toben Nelson, a Minnesota assistant professor who has researched the use of alcohol at sporting events. “Students who are drinking heavily are more likely to act out, particularly when they’re in a large group and close quarters like a football stadium. It’s almost a law of nature.”
Alan Patterson, former chairman of the NCAA’s sportsmanship committee, said some fans just don’t know an alternative.
“They’ve never thought about how they can be loud and supportive without using certain language,” said Patterson, commissioner of Division II’s Conference Carolinas.
The NCAA leaves policies on behavior up to individual schools.
Some see the crackdown as a free-speech issue. Chris Hansen, American Civil Liberties Union national staff lawyer, said the language isn’t obscene.
“Kids aren’t shouting this in an effort to arouse the opposing team,” he said. “They’re shouting it to insult the other team.”
Further, rules against profane and abusive language are too vague and therefore likely unconstitutional, Hansen said.
LSU Chancellor Sean O’Keefe said he doesn’t want to suppress the right of free expression, but his school will suggest proper decorum.
“It’s better that we police ourselves before we get some thought police character saying what we can say or can’t say,” O’Keefe said.
Jane Grimshaw, professor of linguistics at Rutgers, said it seems the way fans use some words is what’s giving them trouble.
“It’s whether it’s being directed against somebody,” she said. And students “push the line as far as they can.”