Over The Top

Extreme vulgarity and taunting by college basketball fans this season raise the question: How much is too much? For schools and conferences, it's time to act
March 03, 2008

KEVIN LOVE knewit would be bad. But not this bad. Sure, he'd chosen UCLA over Oregon afterbeing the consensus national player of the year as a senior at Lake Oswego(Ore.) High—but what happened to his home state's rep for peace, love andunderstanding? On Jan. 23, the day before the Bruins-Ducks showdown in Eugene,Love found more than 30 voice-mail messages on his cellphone when UCLA stoppedfor a layover in San Francisco. He listened to the first one: If you guys win,we'll come to your house and kill your family. He played another: We'll findyour hotel room and blow your f—— head off with a shotgun. He didn't bother tocheck the rest. "I mean, these were death threats," Love says. Shaken,he called his mother, Karen, and had her cancel his cellphone service.

Robert Hussemanknew it would be bad. But not this bad. A sophomore math and business major,Husseman is a member of the Pit Crew, Oregon's rabid, 1,500-strong student fanclub. He had attended the weekly Pit Crew meeting that Monday, heard thatLove's cell number was circulating among members, but did not dial it himself.While nobody has ever called the Pit Crew PC—its members once printed athousand copies of an embarrassing picture posted on Facebook of Stanford'sFred Washington at a party—Husseman couldn't believe the chorus of homophobicchants directed at Love from the McArthur Court student section after UCLA tookthe floor. "I didn't even bother with [saying] the chants," Hussemansays. "I hoped they would die quickly, but they didn't."

Stan Love knew itwould be bad. But not this bad. Stan, who is Kevin's father and thesixth-leading scorer in Oregon's history, arrived at his alma mater that nightin a party of seven including Karen, Kevin's 13-year-old sister, hisgrandmother and his uncle Mike, a cofounder of the Beach Boys. But goodvibrations were in short supply. Stan says his family was pelted with popcorncartons and empty cups, as well as a barrage of profane insults ("everyfilthy word you can think of"), including screams of "whores" thatmade Kevin's grandmother cry. "There were six-year-old kids with signssaying KEVIN LOVE SUCKS," says Stan, who endured a hail of one-fingersalutes to snap photographs of the worst signs. "It was the grossestdisplay of humanity I've ever been involved with. To think I'm sitting at theschool where I played ball, and just because my kid didn't pick Oregon he getsabused like that? I'll never go back there."

Kevin respondedin the most cold-blooded way possible, keying UCLA's 80--75 victory with a26-point, 18-rebound tour de force, but the fans' behavior was the story of thegame in Eugene—just as it has been in several other places around the countrythis season. Fan abuse and taunting are nothing new in college basketball (page43), but 2007--08 has been the ugliest season in years. When Illinois hostedIndiana on Feb. 7, the home fans took out their frustration on Hoosiersfreshman guard Eric Gordon (who'd reneged on a verbal commitment to the Illini)by chanting "F--- you, Gordon," throwing a drink at his mother andcheering when Illini guard Chester Frazier knocked Gordon back five feet with achest bump during player introductions. And after then No. 1 Memphis pulled outa last-gasp win at Alabama-Birmingham on Feb. 16, Blazers fans nearly incited aMalice at The Palace--like riot with Tigers players; forward Joey Dorsey had tobe physically restrained by team personnel from going into the stands.

AS FAMILY membersof targeted players feel the need to bring security guards to road games, andwith schools such as Oregon and Illinois issuing apologies for the behavior oftheir fans, it's worth asking: How much is too much? "The abuse that fansare bringing day to day, whether it's on talk radio or in the stands, is goingto ruin the game eventually," says Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. "Ihate to say this because freedom of speech is at issue, but this isn't whatfreedom of speech is intended for."

Some of the sameconditions that make college basketball so popular—an intimate atmosphere,passionate crowds, heated rivalries—can also create a volatile situation whenfans cross the line. But what is that line? When Duke's Cameron Crazies donnedcaps and gowns on Feb. 13 and held up signs reading maryland BASKETBALL: FEARTHE CLASSROOM, was it a creative dig at their rival's ACC-lowest graduationrate or a boorish put-down? When Virginia Tech fans chanted "TeabagPaulus" at Duke junior guard Greg Paulus last month, was it a humorousallusion to a year-old YouTube highlight (in which the Hokies' Deron Washingtonstraddled Paulus on a layup), or was it, as Joe Buck might say, "vile anddisgusting"?

"When fansare yelling things, that's part of the game. It's just something you have todeal with," says Paulus, who has followed former teammate J.J. Redick andFlorida's Joakim Noah as perhaps the nation's most reviled (and often envied)college hoops player. "But when family members come to a game and can'tsupport their child or are having things thrown and said at them, then that canbe a dangerous situation."

There may not benearly as many incidents of racism and anti-Semitism in college arenas as therewere in the 1960s, but in the year 2008 many fans are waving anti-gay signs,which often appear on national TV broadcasts. Last month a Pittsburgh fan heldup a BROKEBACK MOUNTAINEERS sign when the Panthers met rival West Virginia. Andwhen Kansas State hosted Kansas, one prominent sign (partly written inrainbow-colored script) read TIM HARDAWAY STILL HATES KU, a reference toHardaway's widely criticized homophobic comments last year. A sign at theUCLA-Oregon game proclaimed KEVIN LOVES JOHN AMAECHI, suggesting a link betweenLove and the openly gay former NBA player.

For his part,North Carolina junior forward Tyler Hansbrough says he saw anotherHardaway-themed sign directed at him in a game at Miami. Like a lot of players,he sees the irony of such actions contradicting the stated missions ofuniversities to serve as beacons of enlightenment and open-mindedness. "Alot of [people on] campuses talk about equal rights," Hansbrough says,"but it seems like, when students get together at a big event, [theirbehavior] goes against what colleges are saying."

WHY IS homophobiaso prevalent today? While Jack Aiello, a psychology professor at Rutgers,cautions that racism still hasn't disappeared—after all, he had a ground-zeroview last year of the fallout from Don Imus's derogatory remarks about themostly black Rutgers women's basketball team—he says that today's collegesports venues can be flash points for homophobic behavior. "I've seen inthe last 10 to 15 years a continuing elevation in the visibility of gays andlesbians on campuses, and greater visibility brings the potential for reactionsby majority groups," Aiello says. "People who have strong feelings ofopposition are more likely to demonstrate them, and where's a venue to do that?In a macho sports-arena environment."

And once anadrenaline-filled crowd gets going, it can be extremely hard to control. Eventhough Hoop Scoop—the pamphlet circulated within Illinois's studentsection—encouraged members "to keep your composure and to refrain fromvulgarity" when Indiana's Gordon took the floor, the students followed thatdirective for, oh, about 1.3 seconds before the anti-Gordon chants started. (Itdidn't help that the pamphlet devoted eight times as much space to rehashingevery detail of Gordon's recruitment.) Ever since he changed his commitmentfrom Illinois to Indiana in October 2006, sparking a firestorm of threateninge-mails and Facebook messages from jilted Illini fans, Gordon says he worriedthat he and his family might be in physical danger during the game inChampaign.

"One fansaid, 'I wish you would die.' Another said, 'I hope you break your leg. Don'tcome to Illinois territory,'" Gordon says. "I thought it was crazy, butthere was nothing I could do about it. Thousands of people were writing stufflike that. I knew they were going to get on my parents and throw stuff, whichthey did."

Gordon's father,Eric Sr., says the family brought its own security detail, but that didn'tprevent one fan from tossing a cup of ice water, which hit his wife, Denise, onthe back of her head. "If we didn't have as much security, there's notelling what could have happened," Eric Sr. says. "When people makethreats on somebody's well-being, it becomes a societal issue. This is what'sinteresting: At all the Big Ten away games [before Illinois] there were nonegative chants, but when we played at Ohio State [after Illinois] it was as ifthe student section said, 'We can say anything we want about Gordon [now].' I'mwondering: How does [Gordon's choosing Indiana over Illinois] translate to OhioState?"

Strong responsesfrom college officials and coaches are necessary to help control unruly crowds,Stan Love and Eric Gordon Sr. argue, pointing out that neither Oregon coachErnie Kent nor Illinois coach Bruce Weber stepped in to address their vulgarfans on the P.A. systems. According to Love and Gordon, none of the offendingfans were ejected in either game. "They need a code of conduct," saysLove. "If you're out of line and acting up in the stands, you need to beejected from the arena." When Denise was hit by the cup of ice water, EricSr. says, the culprit stood and challenged the Gordons to come get him. EricSr. pointed him out to Assembly Hall security officers, he says, "butnothing was ever done. Matter of fact, they turned the tables and acted like wewere the aggressors."

TEN YEARS agoGordon and Love probably would not have been subjected to such ugly scenes atIllinois and Oregon, not least because they might not have attended college atall. But the NBA's age-minimum rule began requiring players to spend at leastone season in college ball starting in 2006--07, a change that has coincidedwith the skyrocketing increase in media coverage of recruiting. In basketball,much more than in football, the decision of one 18-year-old can change thefortunes of a team almost immediately. (Would Illinois be 11--17, for example,if Gordon had gone to Champaign? Not likely.) What's more, the popularity ofsocial-networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace has made collegeathletes and their personal information far more accessible to the public,especially if the athletes are naive when it comes to, say, postingcompromising photos of themselves or accepting friend requests fromstrangers.

Perhaps it's nosurprise that some players (including Hansbrough and Paulus) say they havestopped using Facebook altogether. Then again, fans may need to read only anewspaper or a website to find ammunition for taunts. Consider the photographat left, taken in the chaotic moments after Memphis's 79--78 last-second win atUAB. Tigers forward Robert Dozier is standing only a few feet from a femalemember of the Gang Green student section who's wearing an I DATED DOZIERT-shirt and an ersatz black eye—a reference to a complaint filed against Dozierfor allegedly striking his girlfriend outside a nightclub. (No charges havebeen filed.) Nearby a male student holds up a sign reading WE BEAT MEMPIS NOTOUR GIRLS.

Aside from themisspelling, it's hard to find humor in any part of the tableau, from thefusillade of middle fingers to the enraged facial expressions. Just out of theframe Tigers reserve Pierre Niles could have been seen slapping an unruly fan(for which Niles was disciplined internally).

From his home inOregon, Stan Love, Kevin's father, took one look at the scene in Birmingham andshook his head. "The NCAA and league commissioners and athletic directorsneed to put a stop to it," Love says. "I'm all for creative, loud andfunny fans. But don't target one guy, don't threaten him on the phone, don'ttell him you're going to break his legs or get him after the game. And don'tforce the parents to get security guards. Think about it: You're at auniversity, and you have to get security to go in and watch a kidplay?"

If there was onesaving grace for the Loves, the Gordons and Memphis, it was this: Their teamsovercame those unruly crowds and left victorious. Eric Gordon Sr. is convincedthat was no coincidence. "They were so nasty, so hateful, such poor sports,that it all turned back around and we won the game," he says. "I thinkit's karma."

"The abuse that fans are bringing on talk radioand in the stands is going to RUIN THE GAME," says Izzo.

"Campuses talk about EQUAL RIGHTS," saysHansbrough, "but when students get together [their behavior] goes againstit."

"I'm all for creative and funny fans," saysStan Love. "But don't force [a player's] parents to get SECURITYGUARDS."

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Read more from Grant Wahl about the impact fans havehad on college basketball.

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PHOTOJONATHAN FERREY/GETTY IMAGES (LOVE)SCREAM TEST Fans hounded Gordon (top), Love (above and center right) and Duke's Gerald Henderson, who was posterized by UNC faithful for breaking Hansbrough's nose. PHOTOCHRIS PIETSCH/THE REGISTER-GUARD (LOVE)[See caption above] PHOTOKEVIN C. COX/GETTY IMAGES (HENDERSON)[See caption above] PHOTOJOE ROBBINS/GETTY IMAGES (GORDON)[See caption above] PHOTOSTREETER LECKA/GETTY IMAGES (PAULUS)PRELUDE TO A DISS A target even before he was hurdled by Washington, Paulus is perhaps the nation's most reviled player. PHOTOBOB ROSATO (MARYLAND)MORTARBOARD ASSAULT Duke's Cameron Crazies donned caps and gowns to mock Maryland's ACC-lowest graduation rate. PHOTOMARK WEBER/THE COMMERCIAL APPEALSIGN OF THE TIMES? After Memphis's last-gasp win at UAB, Blazers fans nearly incited a riot with Tigers players.

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