Once upon a time, in a rural Midwestern town some would call a sleepy community, a woman accompanied her husband to a high school basketball game.
They had no children playing, coaching or serving as cheerleaders.
Before the first half was completed, the woman was appalled and aghast. It had nothing to do with the quality of play on the court.
Individuals, who for the sake of description will loosely be referred to as "fans" from the home team, were taunting a young man from the visiting school, a teenager with the misfortune of having a receding hairline.
"Rogaine, Rogaine" was the chant each time this athlete touched the ball.
Adults — not students — were at the heart of the insensitive comments.
My wife has not gone with me to another basketball game at this particular Champaign County high school.
The problem with sportsmanship, for many, is that it is merely a word. It is not an action.
For a realistic view of what it's like, we asked the parents of four current area athletes — two adult men and two adult women — for their views on fan behavior at athletic events. For an additional perspective, we checked in with Amy Hird, whose husband, Aaron, guided his Salt Fork boys' basketball team to a state championship in 2010.
These people were consulted individually, yet many of their comments reflect a recurring and common theme: There is a climate of negativity with no lack of targets from coaches and officials to the players and other spectators.
"Parents always want the best for their children," said Amy Hird, a former area athlete and coach. "When they think their children are being 'wronged,' they tend to go into attack mode. As a parent myself now, I do understand their initial response. However, I do not condone some of their actions."
Maybe it's time for earplugs to be sold at the concession stands.
The names are ones which area prep sports fans will recognize: Brazas, Onstott, Romshek and Wallick. These athletes, however, aren't today's focus. Rather it's a parent who routinely watches their child compete: Westville's Joe Brazas, Tuscola's Zena Onstott, Gibson City's Bill Romshek and Fisher's Lori Wallick.
They understand that where there are games — and good plays and bad plays — there will be individuals offering opinions and critiquing each aspect.
"The general excitement of the games makes you want to yell," Zena Onstott said.
"We just need to remember it could be your son or daughter out there getting their feelings hurt. There are times when the fans get unruly or yell at the officials and that makes you feel uncomfortable."
Athletes practice and fans need to, also. Zena Onstott understands.
"I have yelled things I wish I wouldn't have, and I feel bad about it later," she said.
Amy Hird recognizes how easy it can be to lose control. During the seven years her husband has coached in the community where she was reared, she said, "it was challenging to sit back and not say anything to defend my husband when comments were made. Especially when these comments were made by people I'd known for years."
Lori Wallick wonders if the atmosphere at games would be different if the roles were reversed during the football season.
"Let's just say the kids are in the stands and parents on the field," Wallick said. "You start your day with over an hour of weightlifting in the morning at the school. As a parent you worked all day — just as a student goes to school all day — and now after work you have at least a two-hour practice with 20 pounds of equipment on, in the hot sun, and your head is thumping in the snug heavy helmet.
"After practice, you take a shower and put on your uniform to go to your part-time job to pay for the rising gas prices and a bit of a social life with that special someone. You come home from your part-time job not to flop into your bed, but sit at your desk to do your homework and projects that are due to keep your grades up to stay eligible and get into a good college. You pack your bag for the next day to do it all over again."
Finally, it's game time.
"The kids are in the stands and along the sidelines ready to see the kickoff," Wallick said. "You missed that pass and you hear your son shout, 'Oh, my God! I can't believe you missed that. Really? Can't you do better?' and he said it in front of all your friends. You try to motivate yourself for the next play. Then you hear the neighbor girl down the street from you holler out, 'Don't screw up this play, we need this.' The entire game goes similar to this, and your team loses badly.
"Student-athletes put a lot of hard work into the games they prepare for. I think the fan community forgets how much time and energy they spend during the week to prepare for the one to two hours on Friday night, even if they are on the sidelines until the last minute of the game."
Bill Romshek recalls the good 'ol days. Those were the times before son Michael (now playing football at McKendree College) and daughter Regan (now a senior softball pitcher at Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley) were teenagers.
"I remember watching the kids at (youth) soccer. Everyone was laughing and cheering for everyone," Bill Romshek said. "Parents and grandparents would bring treats and cheer for each other.
"Each year, as the athletes would get older, the expectations would increase."
Expectations weren't all that would increase. With more at stake, such as championships, scholarships and media coverage, pressure would mount. The scrutiny of the athletes would intensify.
"Basically, more people (in the stands) means more negative comments," Amy Hird said. "Parents are parents at every level. They don't change, no matter how old their child gets. All coaches are criticized, no matter what sport. The only difference is as a basketball coach, you're more on display than a track coach would be."
Romshek has mellowed over the years and now tells distraught parents "in the big picture of life, it's only high school sports. Trust me, I have learned that myself as I mature at age 50."
It took a non-sporting event for the point to be driven home.
"It's kind of like driving down the road behind an elderly person," Bill Romshek said. "I would get frustrated and my oldest daughter, Jessica, told me to treat that driver like you'd want your parents or grandparents treated by others. I guess she set me straight."
Like Bill Romshek, Lori Wallick remembers the carefree days, when her children started youth soccer as 4-year-olds, as if they occurred yesterday.
"The fan circles on each side yells out encouraging chants: 'You can do it, way to go, nice, great job,' " Wallick said. "They are hearing their coaches' instructions and encouragement. They are having fun out there. Big smiles, teamwork, following the rules, good sportsmanship."
A noticeable change takes place when the opposing team scores a goal.
"This is OK they think to themselves. It's part of the game," Wallick said. "They hear someone from their fan community shout out, 'Run faster,' then another voice yells out, 'You could have made that shot,' followed by 'Take it down the center and shoot it in' and yet another screams the child's name and 'Do something out there.'
"Bad behavior spreads like wildfire. They feed on each other. Why do parents and fans yell negativity and lower the kids' self-esteem, confuse the kids by shouting sideline coaching instructions during the game, repetitively yell their child's name over and over? Seriously, do they want them to stop in the game and answer, 'what?' "
Joe Brazas is not only a parent but also the head coach for his son, Kyle, in baseball at Westville. He hopes to avoid problems by conducting a preseason meeting with parents to discuss expectations.
"I tell them there are three different types of people who come to a baseball game," Joe Brazas said. "Athletes are the individuals who perform and play the game. Fans are those who support the WHOLE team and encourage the players by giving them positive reinforcement. Umpires call the game to the best of their ability."
Then, Brazas offers a concluding statement to those at the meeting.
"When an individual tries to do two or three of these roles, there are problems," he said.
During games, Brazas said three types of player mistakes can occur.
"If it is a mental mistake, I will correct the problem and move on," Brazas said. "If it is a physical mistake, I try to recognize the problem and give some sort of pep talk.
"If it is bad sportsmanship, there is no need for this and my voice begins to escalate."
Beth Sauser, an assistant executive director with the IHSA, said all people should remember the cycle in sports.
"Without coaches, we can't have a team," she said. "Without players, we can't have a team, and without officials, we can't have a contest."
To date, 78 conferences in the state are partnering with the Do What's Right program established by the IHSA and attempting to create a more friendly and less volatile environment at the game sites. She is hopeful of 100 percent compliance in the future.
"If fans knew walking into a facility, here are your five expectations, people might respect the game and maybe each other a little more and not let the emotions take over when it truly is a high school game," Sauser said. "Take pride but keep it in perspective."
There is no such thing as a "good sport" or a "bad sport" when it comes time to separate sportsmanship issues. There are, Zena Onstott said, differences in the sports.
"Baseball, for me, is the hardest to take," she said. "I hear the other team's comments more than I do the other team's comments in football. I think it's because we are so close to each other."
Bill Romshek said "my favorite sport is golf. Individuals can't blame someone else for their errors."
From his point of view, Brazas said "high school football has the worst fans because there is more of a fan base."
Said Amy Hird:
"The criticism from fans can be brutal at times," she said. "I'm a competitive person, but I will never understand someone standing up and essentially making a fool of themselves in front of a gym full of people."
"The normal progression of the pressure cooker of the parent or fan that wants their athlete (child) in the game is they keep a mental stopwatch of how long their athlete has been on the bench," she said. "When the players that are in make mistakes or fall short, (the parent) will make yelling negative comments with hopes others will join in the lynching around him; or shout out recommendations to get that player out and put theirs in."
In a computer-friendly era, questionable conduct is not restricted to on-site comments during game day. Blogs and message boards are filled with diatribes.
"The anonymous fans that can say whatever they want, those things bother me," Zena Onstott said. "I didn't read them at all last year. The year before I did, and it upset me how people trash-talked the other teams.
"When you start talking specifics about the kids, then I don't like it. I wanted to get on there and scold some of them for their comments. To my son's relief, I did not."
The paradox about fan behavior in the stands is that — on occasion — it is the byproduct of a player's conduct. Onstott's son, T.J., has had regrettable moments in baseball.
"T.J. might have let his temper get the best of him a time or two," Zena Onstott said, "and, boy, did the other moms make a big deal about it. Some parents from our school let the other moms know it wasn't necessary to comment that way. I just got up and went to another part of the bleachers to get away from them."
Said Bill Romshek: "I always tell my kids positive attitude and work ethic are more important than knowledge. I tell Regan how she treats her teammates is watched by others."
There are solutions, or at least starting points, to correct the untenable actions. Bill Romshek said a return to values of yesteryear would be a good beginning.
"As a student many years ago, if we would boo a call, or an athlete, we would be corrected," he said. "I believe it starts at home, then to the school. It's a culture we have to instill.
"If the school administration enforces stricter rules, it tends to be better. We are fortunate at GCMS that our school staff is strict."
Zena Onstott agrees that parents need to play a more prominent role.
"The Golden Rule, be kind, all the things you learn in kindergarten," she said. "Parents have to teach that to our kids. I think our educators do a good job of talking to kids or fans who are not acting as they should."
Brazas' mantra is that "positive reinforcement builds up the athlete's confidence."
Fans should think, he said, before they shout out in anger or despair.
"I always hear (directed to a player), 'C'mon. That was high. What were you thinking,' " Brazas said. "Now the ballplayer is so shook up he is definitely not going to swing at the next pitch, which is right down the middle. Give words of encouragement, 'Hey, it just takes one. I know you want to hit it, now smash this one. Get one that you can drive.' "
Bill Romshek's fear is poor sportsmanship will be accepted not just in athletics but also in everyday life. He recalled observing parents from an out-of-town school at a girls' basketball game.
"Both parents would yell and complain all the time. You could hear them above all others," he said. "The older daughter grew up watching these parents and thought it was all right to act this way. I would imagine this attitude goes home — and to their jobs."
What is especially galling, he said, is when parents berate the coaches.
"I get concerned because if parents portray the negative comments in front of the kids, that sends the wrong message of lack of respect to future bosses at work and other adults," he said. "It's a culture we have to deal with in every aspect of life."
One thing Amy Hird has learned to deal with is where she sits for the games.
"When I first started going, I would sit wherever I could find a seat," she said, "but that changed quickly. The more games I attended, the earlier I would arrive.
"I usually would find where I wanted to sit and it was up to the parents whether or not they wanted to sit near me. I never wanted to make the parents feel awkward or uncomfortable."
Amy Hird won't take the easy road out and stay at home with the children.
"The criticism did make it hard to enjoy the game," she said, "but never made me want to stop going."
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette's prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217- 351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @fredkroner.
How to fix it?
The IHSA says ...
The IHSA has continued to promote awareness of the issue (the Add-A-Tude mascot, below, turns 15 this year) with announcements made at all prep tournament games. Additionally, a Do What’s Right program has been implemented to reward schools and fans who exhibit good conduct.
Fred Kroner says ...
Start by doubling the penalty for players and coaches who are ejected (making them sit out two games) and ban parents who get thrown out for the remainder of the school year. They might think twice if they know in advance they’ll miss all the rest of their child’s events.
You say ...
Email your opinion to email@example.com or hit up Fred Kroner during his weekly chat at 12:30 p.m. Tuesdays at IlliniHQ.com.