Update 1/16/20: Grand County High School Principal Stephen Hren confirmed today that he would be retiring at the end of the school year after more than 30 years with the Grand County School District. The decision is not related to incident on Jan. 8, he said in a call with the Moab Sun News, but has "been in the works for a while."
Root for the home team all you want, says the Grand County School District — but don’t harass or taunt the opposing team.
A months-long conflict between some Grand County High School students and administrators attempting to enforce a “good sportsmanship” policy for fans came to a head at a Jan. 8 boys basketball game, where several students were removed by officials in the final moments of the match. The clash mirrors conversations about changing standards for fan behavior at high school, collegiate and professional levels across the country.
In videos filmed during the Jan. 8 game that were widely shared amongst locals on social media, some students in the stands chant “warm the bus up.” Grand County High School Principal Stephen Hren is seen removing some students from the game. But the chant had been a point of contention long before the confrontation.
“It wasn’t isolated to just this game,” said Hren. “Even starting last year, we talked to students about that specific cheer.”
The cheer, implying that the visiting team is about to lose, is considered “taunting behavior” under state guidelines, defined as “actions or comments by coaches, players or spectators intended to bait, anger, embarrass, ridicule or demean others” by the Utah High School Activities Association.
“They can cheer all they want, but we don’t want them to be taunting or ridiculing the other team,” said Hren.
“Before Christmas break, we beat Cortez and some students did the cheer. I again told them that the cheer wasn’t appropriate,” Hren said, referring to a boys basketball home game on Dec. 12.
“Prior to Wednesday, I said ‘remember to cheer positively’ and said that I would remove those that did this at a game,” said Hren.
On Wednesday, Jan. 8, the Grand County High School boys basketball team faced the Grand Junction Tigers. At the end of the game, students removed jackets and sweaters to reveal the shirts emblazoned with the slogan and began the chant, said Hren.
Several students were removed from the game and were given a three-game suspension.
“That’s per statewide policy,” said Hren.
One student was reported to have run to the opposing team’s bench, getting close to the visiting player to display the shirt and slogan.
“Hren pulls me off the stands and I jog over t[o] the opposing teams [sic] Bench and show them the shirt for nearly a second,” the student wrote in an online posting.
The Moab Sun News is not identifying the teens by name as they are minors.
“He’s removed for all home games this season,” said Hren.
Ultimately, said Hren, “We’re doing our jobs. Whether or not parents think it’s appropriate, it’s clearly our job.”
Part of the conflict stems from a recent statewide policy change, following changing standards for fan behavior across the country.
“People are very passionate about their sport,” said Jan Whittaker, assistant director of the Utah High School Activities Association in a call with the Moab Sun News.
“Sometimes, maybe too passionate,” she continued with a laugh.
Initiatives to promote good sportsmanship in high school athletics have been around for years, Grand County School District Athletic Director Ron Dolphin observed, but there wasn’t clear guidance on how to deal with fan behavior.
“At the request of several member schools,” Dolphin said in a statement, “the UHSAA brought forth additional tools to support good sportsmanship and penalties for unsportsmanlike behaviors.”
Those penalties include being removed from games and being asked to complete an online sportsmanship course before being allowed back in the stands. Several students removed from the Jan. 8 game were so penalized.
“We’ve had a few issues with fan behavior in the past...We’ve always had player and coach behavior policies, but in the last year we wrote code for fans,” said Whittaker, who pointed out that such policies are becoming common across all levels of organized sports.
“If you look across the county, you see a lot of problems coming from fan behavior in recent years,” Whittaker said. “At college and professional games, it’s also a problem. The Utah Jazz created a fan conduct policy this past year and we’re working with them about modeling positive fan behavior.”
In Oct. 2019, the Utah Jazz launched the Lead Together program to promote respectful behavior in the stands after several high-profile conflicts between fans and players. Gail Miller, owner of the team, commented at the time of the launch that “everyone who walks through the doors of a sporting event, whether it’s a fan, staff member, coach, player, or guest, should expect courtesy, respect, common decency and civility.”
That same month, the NBA announced changes strengthening its fan code of conduct policy, with Michele Roberts, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, noting an increased “absence of civility that permeated the games,” as reported by The Associated Press.
That emphasis on clear policy and standards for fan behavior at the national level is reflected in new stress on conduct at the high school level this year.
“This is the first year the UHSAA has spelled out in document form what acts are considered unsportsmanlike and penalties associated with unsportsmanlike acts by coaches, players, fans and parents,” said Dolphin.
These new expectations about fan behavior may take some time to become normalized, observed Whittaker. Dolphin agreed.
“There are obviously ‘growing pains’ associated with this new direction by the UHSAA on sportsmanship,” Dolphin said.
While the statewide guidelines are there to set standards and help local schools put policies in place, Whittaker said that ultimately local schools have to enforce the policies.
“We can’t obviously be at every game,” said Whittaker, “ so it’s really up to the school administration to monitor that.”
The UHSAA issued a letter in support of the Grand County School District’s actions. The UHSAA policies around sportsmanship and related programs are available online at https://uhsaa.org/sportsmanship/
Supporting school spirit
“The school has never declared that students can’t cheer, or can’t support their Red Devils,” said Dolphin. “We have tremendous pride in our student body, coaches, fans, and players being supportive in positive ways.”
“There are hundreds of ways for students and fans to cheer for their team and not against their opponent,” said Dolphin.
He pointed out that “Respect” is a key goal for the Grand County School District from kindergarten through high school.
“Why wouldn’t we want to teach and strive to respect each other, a competition, or even an opponent?” he asked.
As for Hren, he hopes that the conflict between students and administrators can be overcome by more communication. He referred to one student who began a fundraiser to sell shirts emblazoned with the slogan and raised $1,430.
“I want to talk to these students,” said Hren. “They’ve got a lot of energy, they’re entrepreneurial. I think there are wonderful ways we can work together.”