Colleges struggle to stem rioting after games
HOUSTON — Along East Beaver Avenue outside Pennsylvania State University, authorities have installed video surveillance cameras and bright lights where students frequently congregate.
At the University of Florida in Gainesville, more than 200 armed personnel roam the stadium during football games and a German shepherd is stationed at each corner of the field.
Precautions against terrorism? Actually, it's steps to prevent a more homegrown problem - hooliganism, American- style.
Student rioting after sporting events is becoming a major problem for colleges across the country. This past weekend alone, celebrations got out of control in California, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Washington state.
Ohio, however, saw the worst of it. Following a win over the University of Michigan, Ohio State University fans set fire to cars, threw bottles, and burned furniture in the streets of Columbus. Police used tear gas and wooden pellets to break up the melee. Forty-five people were arrested.
This weekend may see an even bigger test of how well authorities are prepared to deal with the student excess. Some of the biggest football rivalries in the nation loom: the University of Texas versus Texas A&M, Florida vs.
Florida State, Georgia vs. Georgia Tech, and Notre Dame at the University of Southern California. "A lot of the big rivalry games happen around this time of year, and that contributes to the increase in rioting," says Tom Nelson, editor of Campus Safety Journal, a Los Angeles-based magazine.
While big games are important all season long, few things bring out the best - and worst - in fans more than an intense rivalry. No matter how dismal a record a school may have, winning against a legendary foe can help salvage a season. Pride and prejudice seem to run as deep as in a Jane Austen novel.
Further, experts say, as more pressure is put on college teams to win, because of the money it can mean in TV contracts and the recruiting benefits that accrue, victories and upsets are taking on greater meaning. Fans, inevitably, get caught up in the frenzy.
Yet student unrest at games is hardly a new phenomenon. Here in the Lone Star State, for instance, street rioting broke out after a particularly contentious University of Texas-Texas A&M game in 1911. The melee is one reason the Southwest Football Conference was created four years later. Administrators were so convinced that they needed better rules and some kind of control over the game that they canceled the UT-A&M series until 1915, when the new Conference was launched.
To help deal with trioting today, colleges have begun beefing up security, toughening codes of conduct, and expelling students. Safety is the obvious concern, but so is cost. Three major riots in three years, for instance, caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage at Penn State.
Consequently, in addition to the surveillance cameras, the university has adopted a "zero tolerance" approach on rioting. Since March 2001, 75 students have been expelled or left the school because of unruly behavior. "We've really taken a hard stand," says university spokesman Tysen Kenig. "And the efforts we've made have been successful. We've had an incident-free year so far, even with our football team returning to prominence."
But safety, too, comes at a price - something many schools are happily willing to incur. For each game, the University of Florida spends between $75,000 and $100,000 on security."We want to make sure that all the action is on the playing field," says Greg McGarity, Florida's associate athletics director.
He says students are well aware that if they're caught drinking in the stadium, they will be ejected and can loose their tickets for the year or be expelled. The school is taking other precautions, too: The band is only allowed to play one song after the game in order to keep the celebrating to a minimum. "It's critical," says Mr. McGarity, "because once you lose the field, it's hard to regain control."
Making students aware of tough policies is key, say experts. Reading the code of conduct at freshman orientation is no longer enough: The message about consequences needs to be loud and clear. "If the school wants to be proactive and handle this situation, they need the students to understand what this kind of behavior means, what the repercussions are. Will they be arrested, thrown out of school?" says Mr. Nelson of Campus Safety magazine.
Still, not every public-information campaign will impress everyone. The University of Maryland in College Park tried a PR initiative this fall centered on the slogan "Act Like You Know." The line was plastered on bus stops, sidewalks, and dorm windows around campus. The full message, "Act like you know we're champions," carried the underlying admonition: "Behave yourself."
The campaign came in response to a series of high-profile riots over the past few years. But the campus newspaper, The Diamondback, spoke for the student body when it declared the campaign "a dud."
"The university spent $30,000 on that campaign," says Diamondback editor Jay Parsons. "But I don't know a single student that thinks it's a great idea."
He believes the university is under pressure to end rioting, but is coming up with bad ideas, such as the "ALYK" slogan or setting off fireworks after the game - whether or not the team wins. "They shouldn't try to stifle celebration. They should cooperate with police and set up alternative celebrations that students are going to embrace," he says.
Even more critical, say others, is keeping alcohol in check. Some schools set their games in the evening, which means students have all Saturday to drink. Others don't crack down heavily on such behavior inside the stadium. "Heavy drinking among fans is much more widespread today," says W.K. Stratton, author of "Backyard Brawl: Inside the Blood Feud Between Texas and Texas A&M."
He believes the tailgating culture contributes to the problem, but admits people get too wrapped up in the game. "When people invest their self-esteem in these colleges and these teams and they feel something goes wrong, it's like a personal affront to them," says Mr. Stratton. "Add 12 beers on top of that and you've got the makings for a riot.