Spectator conduct will take center stage when the Central Committee of the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association meets this week in Lake Placid.
The state will open its three-day summit Tuesday and the agenda includes a rule change that would discipline unruly fans. The committee will discuss a policy like the ones enforced on Long Island, where a zero-tolerance stance has been in place for three years.
The focus will be to address verbal and physical abuse from fans acting out toward high school participants, including players, coaches and officials.
The new state rule would have fans get a verbal warning to stop the negative comments or actions. A second warning would include a private discussion about the next step, which is an ejection from the contest. The ejection would carry a one-game suspension.As of now, there is no state rule to address spectators’ behavior. If adopted, the rule would go into effect this fall.
“It’s about time that the state committee addresses what has become an epidemic in the way officials are being treated in most sports,” said Pat Pizzarelli, the executive director of Section VIII, Nassau’s governing body for school sports. “We’re seeing a dramatic decline in school officials with no end in sight. The state is finally taking a ‘we are not going to take it anymore stance’ to combat this abuse.”
The sectional directors on Long Island have been ahead of the curve in addressing spectator conduct. Each section enforces a zero-tolerance policy, which mirrors the state rules for player conduct. A player who is ejected from a contest is automatically suspended from the next contest; an ejected spectator also is suspended from the next contest.
“When a fan is ejected, they cannot attend the next game, plain and simple,” said Tom Combs, the executive director for Suffolk schools. “We had no choice but to go with zero tolerance regarding fan abuse. We’re protecting the officials, coaches and players from fans who are intimidating them through verbal abuse. This is not Yankee Stadium or Madison Square Garden. We’d like to see more support than the negative vibe. There are people who think they have license to abuse people. It’s disgusting. Officials are walking away because they just don’t want to deal with it anymore.”
Combs added that if a person in Suffolk is removed from a contest a second time, a two-game suspension is issued. A third offense carries a suspension for the remainder of the season.
A statement released by NYSPHSAA said, “The sportsmanship committee believes the time has come to hold our spectators to the same expectations that our coaches and student-athletes are held to during an interscholastic contest. If our spectators cannot meet these expectations, then just like our coaches and student-athletes, they will face a similar consequence to their behaviors and comments. NYSPHSAA schools have a requirement to address these types of behaviors as members of our association.”
Rich Lionetti, the president of the Western Suffolk Baseball Umpires Association, believes officials are at a crossroads. “I started in the profession 22 years ago and we had 150-plus umpires in the association,” he said. “We’re down to 90 and they’re mostly part-timers. We officiate for the love of the game. We want to be active and enjoy the sport. But if you’re doing something you love and someone is constantly yelling at you, it’s not fun anymore.’’
NYSPHSAA executive director Robert Zayas said, “Officials recruitment and retention is a big part of our strategic plan. This is just one aspect of accomplishing our strategic plan of encouraging more officials and retaining more officials.”
Garden City director of athletics Eduardo Ramirez said this is an extremely important time to recognize the impact that fan abuse has on high school contests. “You have to control the games from a supervisory point of view,” he said. “If your game-day personnel are visible and active, it makes things easier. Unruly fans ruin the experience for everyone. And officials want to feel safe, as do the players and school personnel. At the rate it’s going, there won’t be high school sports because there won’t be anyone to officiate.”