January 10, 2008
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — More than 30 Middlebury Union High School athletes and sports boosters on Tuesday urged UD-3 administrators and board members to ease up on what they say are strict restrictions on cheering that they say are numbing school spirit and thinning the crowds at home games.
Tuesday’s grievances, aired at the outset of the UD-3 board’s regularly scheduled meeting, came in the wake of an incident during the Jan. 3 MUHS home basketball game against Mount Abraham Union High School, during which a parent was asked by school authorities to leave for “poor sportsmanship” and “annoying other fans.”
The “poor sportsmanship,” according to many of those at Tuesday’s meeting, included encouraging other fans to stomp their feet and standing and waving their hands — fan activities they said are commonly seen during varsity games in other high school gyms throughout the county.
Boosters told UD-3 officials that the Jan. 3 incident merely epitomized what they said has been a steady clamping down on fans’ abilities to cheer at home games, a trend one community member said has turned the MUHS gym into a virtual “morgue” when it comes to team spirit and spectator attendance.
“We understand that not everyone at a game wants to be sitting in a noisy section of the stands, but this tends to sort itself out by where people sit,” resident Linda Pitkin told the board, quoting from a letter she helped author on behalf of the group. “We also realize that there are legitimate concerns about crowd control at any sporting event and do not wish to limit the administration’s ability to deal with these concerns. And we certainly do not want the players, coaches, or officials to be taunted or disrespected.
“However, the current extreme policies have driven away students who feel they won’t have any fun at the games and (the policies) are now even causing some of the loyal fans to rebel. We cannot believe that this is the intention of the administration. When there are less than two-dozen students who show up for a big game and the visiting team has a larger cheering section than the home team, something is clearly amiss.”
Some residents said they feared students would engage in destructive behavior if they didn’t feel comfortable cheering at local sporting events.
“I’m quite concerned that the athletic department, the principal and the school board have driven high school athletics off the playing field, off the gymnasium floor and out into the streets,” said resident David Shaw.
Shaw contrasted the lack of fan participation at MUHS with what he said are packed houses at MAUHS and Vergennes Union High School sporting events. He noted a Jan. 5 MAUHS-VUHS boys’ basketball game at Mount Abe that featured a crowd that overflowed into the school lobby.
He said people were cheering during foul shots, stomping their feet and being boisterous — actions not tolerated at MUHS-hosted contests — but no fans were thrown out.
Shaw said he noticed six Middlebury students at the MAUHS game. When he asked them why they were there, Shaw said they replied, “we don’t go to Middlebury games anymore because we’ll be thrown out of the gym for cheering — stomping our feet. You can’t express yourself.”
He added he knows of at least one MUHS student who has decided not to play basketball due to restrictive policies on cheering.
“These kids are being regulated right out of the sport,” Shaw said. “Somebody is staring at you every moment in the gym, watching your every movement, watching your comments. And then somebody is called on a phone and somebody is sent up to sit next to you to talk about your lack of ethics.”
As a result, he said MUHS fans often find themselves outnumbered by the opposing teams fans and unable to effectively rally support for the home team.
“In the gymnasium, I’ve heard more noise before a communion at a Catholic Church than I hear in a basketball game,” Shaw said. “It’s funny, but it’s sad.”
Student Will Pitkin urged administrators to loosen restrictions on cheering, restrictions that some people at Tuesday’s meeting said were not well defined.
“We all understand we want to have positive, respectful cheering, but… you can only be so entertained by just saying, ‘nice shot,’ ‘nice rebound,’” Pitkin said. “It’s not that the administration is trying to discourage cheering — I just think their definition of what is negative is just ridiculous.”
David Sears, a longtime radio broadcaster and announcer for local sporting events, added his voice to those concerned about a decline in fan involvement at MUHS.
“The irony is, I have seen the best fans and I have seen the worst of fans,” Sears said. “I think the difficulty we have is that you go from the mayhem of Otter Valley to the morgue of Middlebury, and I have seen the gamut of things. Unfortunately, I think over the years, it has continued to deteriorate here at Middlebury in that the continued control of fans has discouraged people from coming.”
Sears added that MUHS’s growing reputation for low fan turnout and decorum has prompted opposing teams to look forward to away games and for officials to assign less experienced crews to referee Middlebury contests because they know “the fans aren’t going to bother them.”
Sears urged MUHS administrators and fans to find a compromise that will preserve civility while enhancing school spirit.
Cindy Atkins, former MUHS varsity basketball coach, said she has always been pleased that the district has had a policy barring disrespectful fan behavior. She acknowledged dwindling fan support, but said the cause of the increasingly empty stands cannot be linked exclusively to rules governing cheering.
“It’s not just a symptom of one program or one issue, I think this community has stopped, years ago, coming to events and supporting their student athletes the way they used to,” Atkins said. “I think there is a much bigger issue here than what is allowed to happen in the gym as a fan.”
Brooke Jette, student assistant program counselor at MUHS, said the student senate is currently discussing the state of “school spirit” and how it can be improved.
“Folks are going to talk about more positive cheering at games — getting it back,” Jette said.
Ideas already being floated, according to Jette, include competitions for the right to don the Tiger mascot suit, developing T-shirts, and organizing rallies.
MUHS Principal Bill Lawson said he and his staff are bound by current school policies and a directive by Addison Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Lee Sease to ensure a “civil and respectful climate” is maintained at local athletic contests.
“I am, for better or worse, the person who is there and has to make the decision as far as what’s appropriate,” Lawson said. “I would say what we go in there wanting to do is, we want noise. We are not opposed to loud noise, but it needs to be respectful. I would be more than happy to talk about that. I think part of the issue is there are some of us in this room who, quite frankly, probably disagree on what’s appropriate and what’s not.”
Lawson said he would welcome a dialogue with local sports fans.
“I would agree that there are issues about attendance and about school spirit,” Lawson said.
“Our staff is anxious to engage with folks to try and come up with stuff that’s positive, that’s loud.” Lawson said.
Sease pledged to “begin looking at the general concerns” expressed at the meeting, and will respond to the boosters’ letter in the near future.