MILWAUKEE (AP) — The Wisconsin high school athletics association blew its whistle on fans’ unsportsmanlike taunts and negative chants — including “air ball” and “season’s over” — and directed administrators in an email last month to call fouls on such jeers.
Weeks later, the association’s executive director has apologized to athletic directors for the distractions from widespread ridicule that followed the note, which he said Wednesday was intended as a reminder of a longstanding sportsmanship policy, not a crackdown on enthusiasm.
“The intention of the message was misconstrued and morphed into something far beyond what it was and what it was intended for,” said Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletics Association’s David Anderson, who added that he stands by the guidelines.
The issue came to a head this week after a basketball player in northern Wisconsin was suspended after she saw the memo and responded with a profanity-laced tweet that was critical of the WIAA. From there, sports media outlets, pundits and fans began mocking the regulations as coddling and overprotective. Sports Illustrated wrote, “The ‘W’ in WIAA technically stands for ‘Wisconsin’ but it should really stand for ‘Whining.’”
The association’s guidelines, which have been in place for years, say spectators are expected to “participate only in cheers that support and uplift the teams involved.” The email included examples of unsporting behavior, including common chants such as “you can’t do that,” ‘’fundamentals,” and “scoreboard.”
While it’s tricky to evaluate specifics, “’air ball’ is sort of borderline,” said Dan Gould, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University. However, he added, “they’ve got to draw the line somewhere.”
For what it’s worth, Anderson and WIAA Communications Director Todd Clark acknowledge that fans still shout negative chants, including “air ball.”
But they say their guidelines are intentionally broad so schools have an easier time identifying behavior that can lead to fights and online bullying.
Clark also noted TV coverage has increasingly focused on rowdy student sections at big-time college programs, prompting high schoolers to try to match the behavior.
“This is education-based sports, we’re not here for entertainment purposes,” he said.
The association has never disciplined a school for fan violations of Sportsmanship Reference Guide policies, Clark said. Penalties listed in the guide include team probations and suspension from post-season play.
Bob Gardner, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, said Wisconsin’s policy isn’t overly restrictive and fits in with his group’s “universal emphasis” on sportsmanship. His group works with sports-governing organizations in each state, which he said all have policies that expect fans and players to be positive.
Still, Whitefish Bay Athletic Director John Gustavson said, the policy “lives in a world that’s not the real world.”
If a shot doesn’t hit the goal, students yell “’air ball’ three or four times, then we move on,” he said.
On Tuesday night, the Whitefish Bay student section had two opportunities to jeer at visiting Milwaukee Morse Marshall over shots that missed their mark. In the first half, an errant attempt generated a few “air ball” chants from a few students. In the second half, with about 5 seconds left in the blowout win, no one said a word when a Morse Marshall jumper failed to draw iron.
Whitefish Bay senior Will Alt said he finds the guidelines unnecessary: “I don’t think they should put restrictions on what you can say at a basketball game.”
Gustavson, meanwhile, said his school doesn’t have significant problems with fan behavior and that the WIAA would be better off focusing on comments that are “racial, hateful or demeaning.”