The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As fans return to high school sports, officials say student behavior has never been worse

“It really did change a lot of things,” said the mother of Mia Hicks-Oliver, 16, and Talani Oliver, 17, about the abusive and racist behavior they experienced earlier this year. “It changed them, as people.” (Marcus DeSieno/for The Washington Post)
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As they competed in a high school basketball game in May, Talani Oliver and her teammate and younger sister, Mia Hicks-Oliver, heard someone in the crowd yell a racist epithet in their direction. Neither said anything to the crowd.

At another point in the game, the Oliver sisters, who are Black and play for their local high school team in Zillah, Wash., heard fans from the opposing student section making monkey noises and gestures.

It didn’t stop as the girls tried to make their way to the team’s bus after the game, they later told their mother, who was not in attendance. When Lauria Oliver arrived to pick her daughters up, she noticed many of their teammates crying. She could see the devastation on her daughters’ faces.

“It really did change a lot of things. It changed them as people,” said Lauria Oliver, who is White. “It was almost like we were in a Twilight Zone. You read about this happening in other places, but until it happens to you … you really don’t know how you’re going to feel.”

Tough love or verbal abuse? For coaches and parents, the new lines are hard to define.

Since the return of spectators to high school sporting events following the pandemic shutdown, many young athletes across the country have experienced similar hate speech and other abuse. School officials have reported problematic fan behavior ranging from students using foul language, making obscene gestures, throwing objects and physically fighting. The uptick also has included spectators hurling sexually demeaning and racist language at young athletes.

Over the past year alone, alleged incidents of abuse by fans have been reported in California, Tennessee, Michigan, Vermont, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Maryland and New York, among other states, and some longtime stakeholders in high school sports agree: The behavior among students in the stands has never been worse.

That has come as schools across the country have reported a surge in student misbehavior, which many educators believe is a reflection of the stress the pandemic has placed on teens.

“Sports is under the microscope … but where it’s really happening is in our schools and in society. It’s happening everywhere,” said Bob Baldwin, a veteran superintendent and coach who is executive director of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association. “Number one, we haven’t had structure. We haven’t had routine. In some cases, a kid who was a junior in high school never really went through their full freshman year, so they don’t even know the ropes on how to behave.

“It’s a microcosm of society in general,” Baldwin continued. “People’s behavior is dysregulated. It’s, unfortunately, as bad as I’ve seen it.”

The incident in Washington had echoes of others across the country. A high school cheer team in California endured racist taunts from students in August. In Montgomery County, Md., where in October officials had to move up football games to the afternoon over safety concerns after students fought at a game, members of a girls’ soccer team at Einstein High — a more diverse and less affluent school in the suburban Kensington area — accused Sherwood High spectators of making racist remarks during multiple games.

A video of the chants directed toward the Oliver sisters made by some in the Connell High student section went viral, and in the aftermath, the Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association banned the school’s girls’ basketball team from playing in the state playoffs. That move was eventually reversed after Connell appealed the decision, citing state law, but the school was levied with additional punishment, including a $1,000 fine.

Student fans were barred from attending games for the rest of the year, and the school will not be able to host games until next year. Still, as parents sent more videos to her in the aftermath of the incident, Lauria Oliver was alarmed by the fact that no one in the gym from Connell stopped the students’ behavior that day. The school’s athletic director issued an apology on Facebook four days later.

“I don’t think one thing was learned from their student body at all. I really don’t,” Oliver said. “I did have one parent from Connell email me and told me I failed as a parent because my children are different and I should have prepared them better for what was happening. I couldn’t believe she did that, but she did.”

Connell’s principal, Bill Walker, did not respond to a request for comment.

In Massachusetts, Baldwin has dealt with several major cases in his first fall on the job: a fight broke out in a September game after players from Roxbury Prep said they were called racist slurs by Georgetown High players and fans. In November, Brockton High students were allegedly subject to racist and homophobic remarks while performing at a football game.

“When we look at the racial instances and the really horrific things that are said and done … we have taken what we might consider bad sportsmanship to a new level,” said Karissa Niehoff, the executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, which oversees most high school sports across the country. “It’s bad sportsmanship, of course. But that’s criminal.

“There’s an uptick in the opportunity to do it. And they’re doing it,” Niehoff continued. “But there’s also an uptick in awareness, there’s an uptick in voice.”

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The girls’ soccer team at Hartford High in Vermont found its voice in October. The team’s longtime coach, Jeff Acker, could tell “something was wrong” during a game at Fair Haven Union High, but because the opposing student section was on the other side of the field, he didn’t know exactly what. The crowd was cheering during odd times, and his players’ body language was off.

With about six minutes to play, during a stoppage, one of his players simply walked off the pitch, and Acker quickly was told why: She was being sexually harassed by students in the opposing crowd. Acker walked onto the field and pulled his entire team, telling them: “We’re out of here.” An investigation by Fair Haven Union’s school district later found that several of the school’s students had made inappropriate comments, including “calling out opposing players by name and number, moaning and barking,” and would be disciplined, according to a statement.

“Good for her, for standing up for herself and then be able to tell me what had happened,” Acker said. “What you realize is, this kind of stuff isn’t actually new, that it happens a lot. The typical response from high school girls is that they’re embarrassed, they’re ashamed, they don’t want to make a big deal. . . . This girl said no, I’m not doing that. And her teammates, who had heard it all, stood up for her, and said: ‘This is what happened. This is not okay.’ ”

It was not the only high-profile story of a female athlete enduring sexual harassment during a game that month. In Pennsylvania, members of a student section chanted sexually explicit vulgarities at an opposing goalie who was the only female player on the team. The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League later banned students at Armstrong High from attending any varsity hockey games for the rest of the season and now requires the school to assign an administrator or faculty member to attend each home and away game to monitor fans for inappropriate behavior.

“We haven’t had structure or routine for two years for kids, so you’ve got that,” Baldwin said. “You’ve also got kids watching adults over the last two years behave in ways that are not upstanding, either. So we’re just calling for people to be kind and more civil.”

The Post spoke to experts who broke down the psychology behind coronavirus-related outbursts and how to act when confronted by one. (Video: Sarah Parnass, John Farrell/The Washington Post)

In Vermont, the incident at Hartford and other recent cases of inappropriate student fan behavior has accelerated the urgency to find solutions to the problem. The Vermont Principal’s Association developed a statement to be read before every game that outlines policies on discrimination and verbal abuse from spectators. The organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee, which launched last year, has built a formal complaint process and is aiming to log abuses to track areas, schools or individuals who are repeat offenders.

“It’s like when you’re welcoming somebody into your home,” said Mike Jabour, the athletic director at South Burlington High and the co-chair of the diversity committee. “That person is coming into your home and thinking they’re going to be treated with respect. And when that doesn’t happen, that falls on you. When they come to our school and community, if they’re disrespected in any way and there is harm that has been done, that’s our fault. And we need to correct that behavior and deal with it immediately.”

In Washington, Lauria Oliver still struggles with the fact that she wasn’t at the game with her daughters that night in May. She had to work and wasn’t able to make the 90-minute trip.

“Why was I not there? I was not there to protect my children,” she says she will often think to herself, and now she does not allow them to go anywhere alone. Her husband died when her daughters were young, she said, and now with eight children in the house, she always has someone go with her girls to their sporting events. They are back on the court this winter for Zillah, and their mother plans to be at this season’s game against Connell.

Mia always looks in the crowd to see if there are any Black people, her mother said, and listens to all the noises people are making. She never did that before May. Lauria asked her why.

“She said: ‘I don’t know. I just want to see what I’m up against.’ ”

Talani has lost passion for the game, “just lost that little light she had,” according to her mother. Maybe it’s that she’s getting older, Lauria wonders. She knows it’s likely more than that.

“That was their place where they shine,” she said. “That’s not their safe place anymore. Being on that court, it doesn’t give them a good feeling anymore.”