There were simultaneous signs of the high school sports apocalypse on opposite sides in the past week.
The Post~Crescent in Appleton reported first:
The tumultuous world of social media has hit home for Hilbert High School athlete April Gehl.
The three-sport star and one of the top scorers for the Wolves’ girls’ basketball team was informed by Hilbert athletic director Stan Diedrich on Wednesday that she would be suspended for five games during the current winter season due to a tweet that Gehl posted on Twitter early Monday morning concerning the WIAA.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Gehl said. “I was like, ‘Really? For tweeting my opinion?’ I thought it was ridiculous.”
Gehl’s tweet, which contained profanity directed toward the WIAA, was her off-the-cuff response to a WIAA email that took students to task for an increasing number of student-section chants at sporting events that mock the opposing team or school.
The email, from director of communication Todd Clark, concerns “sportsmanship” and what the WIAA feels is an increase in the “amount of chants by student sections directed at opponents and/or opponents’ supporters that are clearly intended to disrespect.”
Included in the WIAA email were examples such as “You can’t do that,” “Fundamentals,” “Air ball,” “There’s a net there,” “Sieve,” “We can’t hear you,” the “scoreboard” cheer and “season’s over” during tournament play.
That email was sent to member schools in December. It was forwarded by Hilbert school officials earlier this week to the school’s students and was also in their daily announcements on Monday, according to April Gehl.
Jill Gehl, April’s mother, said the WIAA sent Diedrich a snapshot of Gehl’s tweet with limited direction other than to “please take care of it.”
Diedrich was reached Friday morning about the suspension, but was unable to give specifics.
“I can tell you that the WIAA contacted me with information,” Diedrich said. “Once given the information, we dealt with the matter in accordance with board policy.”
Clark said in an email Friday to Post-Crescent Media that April Gehl’s tweet was brought to the attention of the WIAA. The school was then informed.
“To be clear, there was no language in our correspondence with the school that stated to ‘take care of this,'” Clark said. “That determination is for the member school to address. But these issues, like other sportsmanship issues brought to our attention, are shared with our members for their awareness.”
According to Jill Gehl, that school policy includes a section on inappropriate language, which her daughter was ultimately punished for.
If Gehl was punished for inappropriate language, the WIAA got punished for inappropriate overreaction, worldwide, also as reported by The Post~Crescent:
Attention the story has received includes:
• Daily Mail (U.K.): High school basketball player suspended over tweet
• Forbes: Wisconsin incident highlights need for adults to stop overreacting
• The Big Lead: Female HS basketball player suspended five games for tweet
• WTMJ in Milwaukee is featuring the story on the Jeff Wagner show as well as the nighttime sports show: WIAA bans chants; student-athlete tells them to ‘eat (expletive)’
How are the fans themselves reacting? The Dubuque Telegraph Herald’s Steve Ortman writes:
Student sections across the state responded on Tuesday night, as a group of students at Ashwaubenon High School attended a game dressed in black with duct tape over their mouths that read ‘WIAA.’ The student sections at the boys game between Platteville and Darlington High Schools remained silent throughout the contest.
“The intention of the message was misconstrued and morphed into something far beyond what it was and what it was intended for,” WIAA Executive Director David Anderson told The Associated Press on Wednesday. He also said he stands by the guidelines.
While I do feel the national exposure on this is blowing the matter a bit out of proportion and that the WIAA had the best of intentions, the whole idea of regulating what crowds can and can’t chant at a game is silly and simply absurd. These kids pay the money to come to the games and should be allowed to chant whatever they want (within reason, of course). And chanting such classics as “Air ball!” isn’t really hurting anyone’s feelings. In fact, after all these years, it’s to be expected at games.
The WIAA needs to ask itself what the point of coming to their games is exactly if you’re not allowed to have any fun while cheering on your friends and classmates?
The reaction included a letter from state Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R–Brookfield):
I am disappointed by the recent actions taken by the WIAA targeting decades’ old fan chants and comments. I’ve been there. I was the 6’7” awkwardly skinny high school basketball player that came off the bench for the final 20 seconds of play after my team was already down by 20 points. On more than one occasion, I would take my shot for my first points of the season (although the season was already halfway done) only to miss the rim and backboard. There it was, the humiliating “air ball” chant. Hearing that quickly makes a 6’7” teenager feel like he would rather be 3’7” and quietly find an exit but today I look back with greater clarity on those moments. …
After putting in a significant amount of work, I ended up being just good enough to play at the local community college followed by playing D3 basketball at Lakeland College in Sheboygan. I had three different head basketball coaches during my college career and the high school “air ball” chant was relatively easy to deal with compared to what my coaches yelled at me when I failed to properly box out. Several years later I joined the Army and met my first drill sergeants – all of a sudden my previous coaches and opposing fans seemed reserved in comparison.
I can continue but here is my point. Having our young people in the sporting arena makes them stronger – an arena that builds character includes jeers and cheers. High school athletes are our future leaders. There is education in learning how to deal with the opponent’s fans, embarrassment and losing.
Even Aaron Rodgers chimed in, reports ESPN:
Apparently, if Aaron Rodgers were the ringleader of the student sections of Bayport, Ashwaubenon or De Pere high schools, he’d be in for a trip to the principal’s office.
After reading about the uproar the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association created recently by reminding schools of the chants it deems derogatory toward opponents — including “air ball!” “score-board!” and “fun-da-men-tals!” — the Green Bay Packers quarterback confessed Wednesday that he’d have been in trouble had such rules been enforced back in Chico, California, at Pleasant Valley High School basketball games.
“I led the chants when I wasn’t playing, and we said a lot worse stuff than that,” Rodgers said, shaking his head. Although he played basketball throughout his childhood, Rodgers gave it up to concentrate on football later in his high school career.
“I think we’re, as a society, dying a little bit each day if we’re not only dumbing down our masses but we’re also limiting the things that we can say. ‘Air ball’ and ‘scoreboard,’ from a chant standpoint, in 2001 when I was in the stands watching my high school basketball team, that’s like the ground floor of stuff we would say.
“Think about the fans at other stadiums we play at or at Lambeau Field. I don’t think that [high school competition] warrants censorship. What are we telling our kids, that freedom of speech doesn’t exist? And any type of negative comment, you’re going to get somebody in trouble for? I just don’t agree with that.
“I don’t agree with any type of racist or homophobic language, any of that type of stuff from the crowd to the people on the field. But ‘scoreboard’ and ‘air ball’ and ‘fundamentals,’ which is a great chant?”
The WIAA got some support from WSAU radio’s Chris Conley …
As a practical matter, there’s very little that can be done. Should a team be penalized because their fans are taunting? Should the game be stopped or suspended? Should students be disciplined for cheers that administrators deem inappropriate? Will be we playing in front of empty bleachers? And there may be some people within the WIAA who want to go down that road. That’s overreach. Playing in front of a crowd is also part of the experience for high school athletes. And I don’t know of a good way to separate the positive experience of having athletes playing in front of a crowd and the possibility that some cheering might be negative. It is not easy to create a great game-day experience without negativity. Sports creates an emotion response in those who watch. If people didn’t care that their team wins, they wouldn’t go. There’s nothing wrong with the spontaneous cheering, or booing, that comes after a controversial call or a close play. Just like with the athletes themselves, a spontaneous show of emotion is expected. But taunting cheers are different. It’s an area where people need to do the right thing… just because. It’s probably a fool’s errand.
But picture this: His team is trailing by one point in the state finals. The senior captain takes the final shot that will lead to a championship or a defeat. It’s the moment that every athlete has dreamed about. But as he’s shooting the ball slips out of his hands. The buzzer sounds. And it’s over. All of the work and practice and self-sacrifice has ended. He feels horrible and has that empty ache in the pit of his stomach; it’s the moment of defeat. A flood of emotion comes over the young man — he’s 18 — and he begins to cry as he walks off the court for the last time.
Are you going to be the person who starts the “air – ball” chant? Are you going to yell “season over!” at him? Is his final memory of high school athletics going to be the “scoreboard!” cheer? That’s not the environment I expect high school athletes to compete in. And fans who cheer that way should reflect on what they’re doing. And I’m on the side of the WIAA — the group that says that’s not right.
… though based on past experience I think the taunting Conley suggests could happen isn’t likely, because if your team just won state, you’re focused on that and not your opponent. (Also, a chant coming from the Kohl Center or the Resch Center is harder to hear than someone 15 feet away from you in a high school gym.) In fact, the taunts that concern the WIAA, I suspect, disappear after the game, unless something that happens during the game is controversial.
You can read an excellent WIAA takedown here, and from the Wisconsin State Journal’s Art Kabelkowsky:
The WIAA has published the guidelines in some form since 1997 (last revised in 2005) and sends out reminders at the start of each athletic season. Which is to say that fans, parents and even some administrators and coaches have been pretty much ignoring them for more than a decade.
Now, thanks to an epic bungling of the optics of the Gehl situation (and, in part, to the common-sense indefensibility of the policy in the first place), the WIAA has allowed this cracked hornet’s nest to bust wide open.
And the story lives on.
WIAA executive director Dave Anderson tried to quell the maelstrom Tuesday evening, sending an email to athletic directors with a “sincere apology” for a Dec. 22 email from communications director Todd Clark that reminded schools and students of the sportsmanship guidelines. By now, though, the horse already is out of the barn.
ESPN’s Jay Bilas drew kudos for simply repeating variations of the same obvious joke a half-dozen times on Twitter, such as this proposed replacement for the “Air ball” chant: “We note your attempt did not reach the rim, but only to alert the clock operator that a reset is unnecessary.”
(Of course, that chant ignores the fact that high school basketball does not use a shot clock. As such, it violates one of the WIAA’s mandated fundamentals of sportsmanship: “Know the rules of the game.”)
In the wake of this attention, noted former Wisconsin prep athletes have tweeted their support for letting fans be fans.
Even the particularly nasty comments and actions stuck with some of these athletes — some even have photos of the signs — and they all seemed to agree that, in hindsight, the negative comments helped to spark their competitiveness, thicken their skin and even make them laugh.
And there’s the problem. Skin-thickening isn’t a goal of high school athletics, or of anything else in today’s society — in which people seem to have assumed the inalienable right to never, ever see or hear anything that might be judged to be offensive or negative in any way. …
So here’s what the WIAA should have told student sections: “Have fun. Behave. Don’t be idiots. Police each other. Don’t say or do anything you wouldn’t want to see on the TV news. Learn to be responsible for your actions.”
Instead, they’ve gone and tried to mandate rules against the very things that make being a sports fan fun. To insulate kids from something that they just plain will not be insulated from in real life. Do that and you’ll be lambasted by national media. And you’ll deserve it.
Please let me begin by offering a sincere apology for any distress or dissatisfaction which may have come your way as a result of a sportsmanship email from Todd Clark dated December 22, 2015. The intentions of that email have become much scrutinized and misunderstood.
From our perspective, the email was simply a reminder in advance of the many holiday tournaments held every year across the membership. Nothing more, nothing less, than what has been shared across the membership via the Sportsmanship Manual since 2005.
To be clear, there has been no new directives, no new rules, no new mandates, no new enforcement expectations associated with the email.
We know that the challenges of keeping interscholastic athletics a fun, safe and educational experience for our athletes, students and fans are never ending. We see and respect the everyday efforts of individual members and conferences in striving to create the positive environment you are proud of — and we appreciate those efforts. Carry On! Please keep up the great work, just as you have been doing.
The Post~Crescent’s Ricardo Arguello adds:
Does it warrant a stern talking to from the Hilbert officials? Sure. Should Hilbert have requested Gehl take down the tweet and apologize? That’s seems fair.
And judging by the statewide, national and international attention, there are many folks around the world who agree.But a five-game suspension? That’s clearly going overboard, especially when other infractions such as underage drinking or fighting would possibly produce the same length of suspension. There seems to be an imbalance on transgressions. Perhaps athletic codes from high schools need to be a bit more clearly defined. Whatever the answer, five games, or 25 percent of the basketball season, is far too much.
It was the WIAA that informed Hilbert of Gehl’s tweet. That may or may not have led to the quick action by the Hilbert officials. But the WIAA sticking its nose in this kind of business is another column for another time.
At the very least, this story should trigger discussions about how adults approach discipline and how we inform student-athletes about the dangers of social media. A level-headed and honest approach is needed. Student-athletes, in my extensive experience in dealing with them the past 20 years or so, respond much better to blunt but fair handling than overbearing smothering.
In Gehl’s case, her punishment is so over the top that it borders on absurd. Believe me, her peers in the state and beyond will pick up on this perceived mishandling, and that could make the respect demanded by school officials a bit more difficult to keep intact.
Not to mention support of public schools by taxpayers. School districts don’t make much money from admission fees for games, but the WIAA does. If fans stop going to games because they don’t want to deal with the school Fun Police, particularly in this world of almost infinite entertainment options, they’re not likely to alter their work schedule to go to postseason games in far-off communities (Madison, Green Bay, etc.) either. There are people in some communities whose support for their schools, other than paying school district property taxes, extends only to high school sports. Unless some common sense prevails, watch what happens to future school district revenue-cap or building-project referenda.
Whether this is political correctness gone amuck, or an overreaction to bullying, shielding students from unkind expressions is not really education. Life is not easy, and some delicate little flowers are likely to have a rude awakening once they arrive in the real world.
The opposite side is reported by the Ripon Commonwealth Press:
At least one key member has left the Ripon High School boys’ basketball team amid concerns of “inaccurate statistics” that have been reported by the team, leading to an investigation by Ripon Area School District officials.
While the district did not identify who is alleged to have created those statistics, head coach Dean Vander Plas offered an apology at a team parents meeting Wednesday night.
While the district did not identify who is alleged to have created those statistics, head coach Dean Vander Plas offered an apology at a team parents meeting [Jan. 6].
“I can’t get into much more than that other than saying, when you are in a [coaching] position, you should be able to carry out your process so that things are done well, and when you don’t, you must acknowledge it,” Vander Plas said Friday afternoon.
What exactly has happened that led to this situation, though, remains unclear.
Though a prepared statement explained the issue came to light Dec. 31, athletic director Bill Kinziger hedged when asked to elaborate on how it became known.
“I’ve got to be careful how I say it,” he said, noting simply, “It was brought to our attention.”
He intimated that it was someone in the know about the team who brought it forward.
“It wasn’t just somebody off the street,” Kinziger said, adding, “I can’t give you the identity.”
What is known is that it involved inaccurate statistics being reported, and that the district now has reassigned the recording of statistics to its athletic department, and is disciplining at least one staff member.
This is about the chase for college athletic scholarships, which should not be the primary purpose of participation in high school athletics. This is not really about high school athletics except for what some think it should lead to, college athletics, even though the percentage of high school athletes who continue in college is very small. You’d have to ask the parents involved (some of whom are former college athletes) if they’re trying to relive their childhoods through their kids.
It takes a sports editor to point out that academic scholarships are much more readily available than athletic scholarships are.