Copyright 2002 The Chronicle of Higher Education
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Dec. 13, 2002, Friday
STUDENTS; Pg. 40
LENGTH: 2046 words
HEADLINE: Reading and Rioting: Colleges Struggle to Find Ways to
Prevent Post-game Rampages
BYLINE: ERIC HOOVER
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
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,
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
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
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
"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
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.
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
Still other colleges, such as the University of Maryland at College
Park, have enacted tougher sanctions intended to deter as well as
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.
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
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
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
"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?"