College football fans assume new risks for running on the field

Have the good old days of students rushing the field to support their team been tamped out by severe punishments that outweigh the thrill of jumping onto the football stadium turf?

Jay LaPrete/AP/FILE
In this Sept. 21, 2013 file photo, Ohio State plays against Florida A&M at Ohio Stadium during an NCAA college football game in Columbus, Ohio.

Now that college football has become serious fiscal business for universities, a romp that some parents might have once taken across the field during their student days can now result in serious injury, as well as legal and scholarship issues for today’s students.

Among recent examples, there is news footage of Ohio State University mechanical engineering student Anthony James Wunder – who goofily leapt onto the field during the game – being body slammed by Ohio State assistant football coach Anthony Schlegel.  

Mr. Wunder, 21, a fourth-year engineering student, is charged with misdemeanor criminal trespassing. He was evicted from the honors housing by the Evans Scholarship Program, which covers tuition and housing for former golf caddies.

While it was reported on October 1 that his full-ride scholarship had been revoked, a spokesperson for the Western Golf Association’s Evans Scholars Foundation asserts, “His defense attorney said that in court but it’s simply untrue. The fact is it’s still being decided.”

According to an Evans Foundation press release on the incident, the organization states. “We are disappointed in Mr. Wunder’s actions. He has been suspended from all Evans Scholars activities but remains on scholarship pending the outcome of our internal investigation into this incident.”  

All this because an honor student in his fourth year of college got swept up in a moment within an atmosphere specifically designed to whip fans into a frenzy of team support, sometimes fueled in part by alcohol at tailgate events supported by the schools.

While the Ohio State football stadium doesn’t sell alcohol at its concession stands, there are permitted tailgate parties that occur before games in designated areas attached to the stadium, according to an employee who works at the stadium.

A court complaint said that Wunder was intoxicated at the time of the incident, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

It sounds a lot like holding a birthday party for a room full of young children, pumping them full of cupcakes, playing zany music, and then unleashing them in a pristine house with severe consequences applied for touching anything with dirty hands.

That would not be wise parenting. Similarly, creating this kind of frenzied fan environment for students may ultimately prove to be unsound business for college football.

The are laws that protect children from something called “an attractive nuisance” - such as having a swimming pool with no fence around it next to a daycare center.

How can college students keep from getting wrapped up in the prevalent party atmosphere that tempts them to jump into the big-kid version of the un-fenced pool?

Two weeks ago at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, Kevin Tardif, 21, of Canada streaked naked across the field during a televised football game – the first nationally televised game ever for the team. The result was his immediate arrest with charges that could result in a one-year jail term, according to The Virginia Pilot. 

Old Dominion sets up numerous pre-game tailgate party locations in the neighborhood surrounding the school, and I live blocks from the football stadium. I have watched people drink for hours before the game, and then make their way toward the stadium. While the police and security do their best to contain the public drunkenness, it’s not surprising to learn that someone that inebriated made it into the stadium.

These incidents made me realize that it might be best to hold off telling my sons those tales of students rushing the field back during my college days, since the atmosphere is entirely changed. Back in my college years, it would have been rare that somebody lost their scholarship, let alone end up in court, over one goofy moment inside a stadium full of pumped up fans.

Once upon a time, I was a crazy college football fan. During my freshman year of college, I dated a football fan and former high school linebacker named Cliff. He loved football so much, and did a great job of whipping fans into a frenzy during the games.

So, I sprinted across an unpopulated part of the field, face painted in the team’s colors, wearing his jersey over a bathing suit, across a few football fields – sober as a judge – but high on team spirit, more than once.

There were no coaches or security guards waiting to tackle and jail me after my goofy escapades.

I never got arrested because, while football at colleges and universities was serious business where winning was concerned, it wasn’t big business the way it is today.

Of course the games weren’t televised on ESPN with big ticket sponsorships on the line and assistant coaches reportedly making over $500k like the ones at Ohio State do today. 

In 2013, the most valuable college team, according to Forbes Magazine, was the University of Texas Longhorns, worth $139 million, roughly 20 percent more valuable than the OSU Buckeyes. 

While Wunder’s story inspired me to recall my crazy football fan days, I won’t be telling the tale to my kids.

I’m not at all embarrassed by what I did. However, I am afraid that maybe, just maybe, a rowdy tale like mine may be giving my own kids the green light to follow my crazy footsteps in a world where such pranks are being cracked down on in extreme ways never experienced before.

Good parenting is all about letting the punishment fit the crime.

If we are making running across a football field during a college game into a crime, then perhaps the punishment should be something like cleaning the stadium, rather than potentially losing a future.

College is a place to learn academic and life lessons, both in and out of the classroom. While football at many schools has morphed into a highly-controlled moneymaker, it might be time to make sure the fans swept up in the game aren’t losing out.

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