Copyright 2002 The Chronicle of Higher Education
The Chronicle of Higher Education

Dec. 13, 2002, Friday

LENGTH: 2046 words
HEADLINE: Reading and Rioting: Colleges Struggle to Find Ways to Prevent Post-game Rampages

November was a good month for college-football fans, but a better one for fans of chaos. Students at nearly a dozen colleges celebrated gridiron victories by storming fields, felling goal posts, and breaking bones.

In many cases, the post-game pandemonium spilled into the streets, where windows were shattered and mailboxes toppled. The rowdiest celebrants even set cars ablaze.
While the hooliganism of fans is nothing new, there is growing concern on a number of campuses about the threat that sports riots pose to communities, not to mention to the reputations of colleges. This fall's "rivalry week" – during which many football nemeses played each other -- was perhaps the most destructive seven-day period that academe has seen in years.

On Nov. 20, a Wednesday, hundreds of students at West Virginia University responded to the Mountaineers' victory over Virginia Tech by starting fires and uprooting street signs throughout Morgantown, W.Va., even though the game itself took place more than 100 miles away, in Blacksburg, Va.

That weekend, dozens of bonfires burned well after midnight in Columbus,
Ohio, after Ohio State University defeated the University of Michigan to earn a trip to the national championship game, in January. Rioters hurling rocks and bottles turned an off-campus housing area into a war zone. Police officers fired tear gas and wooden pellets known as "knee knockers" to subdue the crowds. At least 45 people were arrested.

Local police officers estimated that the damage would exceed tens of thousands of dollars. About two dozen cars were burned or flipped over. Heat from fires reportedly caused part of one street to collapse.

Also on that Saturday, students rushed the fields at Clemson University, North Carolina State University, and the University of California at Berkeley. At Washington State University, fans threw debris at players from the University of Washington following the visiting team's 29-26 triple-overtime victory.

Identifying With Violence
Although most of the reported injuries were minor, administrators on some campuses worry that greater carnage awaits. College officials who work closely with students agree that such events, though not necessarily increasing in frequency, are becoming more volatile. Post-game celebrations, whether violent or simply spirited, traditionally happened in one place (near the stadium), but they are now more likely to involve disturbances at many sites, most of them off campus.

As the radius for potential trouble has expanded, many colleges have responded with more-aggressive policing, tougher punishments for students who riot, and an array of prevention tactics. But the entrenched culture of big-time college sports often seems to encourage the very mayhem that colleges are trying to deter.

"Winning has become so significant in college sports that this type of behavior has been institutionalized," says Jerry M. Lewis, a professor of sociology at Kent State University who has conducted numerous studies of sports-related violence. "These are rabid fans who strongly identify with the program, so they engage in these feats of skill, like knocking out windows. They are identifying with the violence that takes place on the football field ... then acting that out."

What frustrates many college officials is that sports riots, like runaway trains, are seemingly impossible to halt, even though they usually can be seen coming. Unlike random brawls, disturbances that follow college games are relatively predictable, tending to occur on specific days, under particular circumstances.

But forethought and preparation may not be enough to prevent thousands of students from simultaneously going berserk after an emotional contest.

The recent incidents at Ohio State are a case in point. In the weeks leading up to the Michigan game, Ohio State officials planned meticulously for riot-free celebrations, holding strategy sessions with property owners, community leaders, and students.

The university ran public-service announcements encouraging good sportsmanship on radio and television, and distributed fliers with safe-partying tips throughout student neighborhoods. Numerous student-focused events, including a blood drive organized with Michigan students, had sent positive vibes across the campus all week.

By kickoff, Bill Hall, the university's vice president for student affairs, was optimistic. He had received mostly positive feedback from students about the university's efforts to prevent violent activity. The university had arranged for a free concert after the game, giving fans a structured social outlet that evening. In the crowds, student groups were distributing free food, which can help absorb any booze that fans consume during games.

Although some police officers used pepper spray on students who charged the goal posts after the game, the university's strategy -- to take a hands-off approach with the on-field mob -- seemed to keep the site under control. Eventually, the jubilant fans dispersed, many of them heading off to all-night parties that were loud, but not outrageous. Dozens of police officers, wary of provoking students by lingering in one area, tried to stay mobile.

"It was smooth until 12:30 in the morning," Mr. Hall says. "Then a few people started a fire in the street. That's when things began to escalate."

Mr. Hall says that the "cell phone phenomenon" helped turn the small disturbance into a full-scale eruption.

"Students can now communicate when something is about to occur" in a specific area, Mr. Hall says. "Curiosity takes effect, the crowds escalate very quickly, and trouble builds."

That so much planning at Ohio State was undone in a matter of minutes has convinced Mr. Hall that colleges are up against a powerful "societal force."

"Many students have told me that they are not even sure why they did what they did," he says. "They say they just got caught up in the crowd."

Cheering and Yelling
While such behavior is not limited to sporting events, game-day atmospheres often provide the environment for antisocial behavior.

Students in the stands spend hours cheering and yelling. Alcohol, a standard accompaniment at sporting events, inevitably loosens inhibitions. The large crowds that make home-field advantage so meaningful also help students to feel anonymous and, therefore, less responsible for their actions, according to sociologists who study the behaviors of large groups.

Given that those environmental circumstances can make riots seem like a fait accompli, it is not surprising that many colleges have embraced stronger measures to confront the problem. For example, security officers routinely use pepper spray and dogs to protect goal posts at a number of campuses. While some students say that provokes as many fans as it repels, law-enforcement officials argue that such actions are necessary to prevent injuries.

At least one institution recently decided that the post-game struggle between police and students was no longer worth the risk. After a local sheriff's deputy sustained a broken collarbone while trying to protect the goal posts from surging fans at Clemson last month, university officials announced that the field will become completely off limits to fans.

'Sofa Ordinance'
Some colleges and towns have taken more-creative approaches to cracking down on unruly fans.

In October, for example, Louisiana State University dispatched undercover officers dressed as University of Alabama football fans to a game in Baton Rouge.

The city of Boulder, Colo., in an effort to prevent the bonfires that often fuel riots, adopted a "sofa ordinance" last summer that prohibits any upholstered furniture from being kept outdoors in areas near the University of Colorado.

Technology is also playing a larger role. Some localities are using surveillance cameras to track down rioters after the fact, while others have established telephone hotlines that students can call to offer tips, with some localities offering reward money for information that leads to arrests and convictions.

Institutions such as Ohio State, Pennsylvania State University, and Purdue University have worked with local police departments to create Web sites that post photographs of riots.

"It's useful because there is a strong deterrent value," says Tysen Kendig, a spokesman for Penn State, which was the site of three large student riots between 1998 and 2000. Of the 83 students who were apprehended in those incidents, 81 have either been expelled or have left the university. The university has not had any riots since.

Still other colleges, such as the University of Maryland at College Park, have enacted tougher sanctions intended to deter as well as punish.

Over the past two years, students there caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to the campus and surrounding areas after men's basketball games, culminating in a destructive celebration that followed the Terrapins' first national championship title, in April. As part of its new "zero tolerance" anti-rioting program, the university's Board of Regents approved a policy last summer under which students caught lighting bonfires, destroying property, or engaging in assaults on or off the campus during postgame celebrations would be expelled, although officials may substitute lesser sanctions.

The university simultaneously introduced a controversial marketing campaign -- dubbed "Act Like You Know" -- to promote good sportsmanship. The slogan, meant to encourage fans to behave as champions (and not as thugs), appeared on posters and signs around the campus this semester. But some student leaders and faculty members complained that the effort was frivolous -- especially after the student newspaper revealed that the campaign cost $30,000, with $10,000 paying for T-shirts bearing the slogan.

Tarnished Images
Students are hardly unanimous in their views of sports riots, however. While some say that the incidents are a rite of passage, a natural part of the college experience, others condemn the boorish behavior that makes for front-page news.

In the end, peer pressure may be the key to keeping students from rioting.

To change the behavior of fans, "you have to get significant others to convince them" to change, says Mr. Lewis, the sociologist. "With all due respect, nobody listens to college presidents."

Students also may be less inclined to tolerate such behavior if they perceive that violent incidents are stigmatizing their future alma mater.

Following the spate of riots at Penn State several years ago, Andrew Bergstein, a marketing instructor who provides career counseling to students, began hearing that potential employers were asking some students seeking jobs about the incidents, much to the alarm of applicants. The concern that riots on the campus could have negative "residual effects" on students is justified, Bergstein says, particularly in a tighter job market, where employers are scrutinizing their hires more carefully.

Because massive post-game celebrations usually attract numerous nonstudents however, many of those who riot have no affiliation with the college whose image they may be tarnishing.

Concerns over image alone will not stop the rioting. That will most likely take a combination of peer pressure, more creative programming, stricter enforcement of laws, and stiffer penalties for offenders -- including expulsion and criminal charges. Ensuring that students have alternatives, such as concerts, after big games can help reduce the number of participants in violent celebrations, according to some colleges.

"Young people don't want to be observers -- they want to be doers," says Gary
Pavela, director of judicial programs at Maryland and an expert on campus crime. "You can see at these sporting events that there's this movement of observers becoming more and more like participants. We have to be able to channel that in ways that we're proud of."

The even greater challenge is to take a long look at the role of big-time sports on campuses.

"We need to ask," says Mr. Pavela, "have we overdramatized the importance of these events in students' lives such that we have unleashed a force that we can't control?"