Monday, February 22, 2010

A Good Problem To Have

A few years back, Dartmouth had a track star named Mustafa Abdur-Rahim, who was an All-America decathlete. TigerBlog is pretty sure he had a twin brother who was on the track team as well.

Anyway, these two guys were at every Princeton-at-Dartmouth men's basketball game during their four years, and, TB assumes, pretty much every Dartmouth game they could get to.

The student section at Dartmouth was (is?) right behind where TB would set up for radio, and these two were relentless in how they were on the Princeton guys during the game. They were also at a distance of about two feet from TB, and almost everything they would yell would get picked up by the radio.

At the end of the fourth year of this, TB turned around as the final buzzer sounded and told Abdur-Rahim that he admired what a great fan he was and how no matter what he yelled, he never crossed the line into anything inappropriate. Abdur-Rahim gave TigerBlog a big hug and said "it's all good." That was six years ago.

With the recent upswing in the men's basketball program here, there has been a corresponding rise in student attendance. The last two weekends especially saw great student turnout, this on the heels of a few years of having almost no student support for men's basketball.

This leads to a dual issue for the athletic administration. First, it's clear that having the students at the game enhances the atmosphere, makes it tougher on the opponent, brings the building to life.

On the other hand, because so much of our marketing effort is aimed at families with children - and because we have a belief in basic dignity and civility - it's important that we be diligent when student behavior crosses the line.

The problem is, how do you define that? And who defines it?

If you asked 10 people what pregame music they'd like to hear at Jadwin Gym, you'd get 10 different answers. TigerBlog would be fine if the soundtrack of Bruce Springsteen's "Live In Cleveland" was the sole pregame sound; others might cringe at the thought.

The same is true with acceptable behavior. Yes, some stuff is obvious. Profanity. Things that disrupt the game. Close interaction with the opposing team personnel and players. Inappropriate signs in the stands.

But society today isn't like society of 20 years ago, 40 years ago. So much of American culture today includes acceptable amounts of what can be summed up as taunting that it's hard to escape it.

It's everywhere, especially in the mass media. TV rewards taunting by putting the taunters (players, fans, anyone) on the screen over and over again. How many times does a football game go to commercial not with the replay of the big play just before the break but instead with a super slo-mo of someone taunting someone?

It's in video games, written into the computer script deliberately. It's at youth sports. It's done in good fun in backyard games all the time.

So what about at Jadwin Gym? It's hard to say.

The chant of "Bull----" that can be heard on bad calls, questionable calls and even any call that goes against the home team happens everywhere, and it has come up at Jadwin. This does not go hand-in-hand with a philosophy of creating a family-friendly atmosphere, but it's also not easy to go up to a large group of students and tell them to knock it off.

Princeton has been lucky that the students have done a good job of policing themselves in this area. The same is true with other profane chants.

So what did we have the last two weekends at Jadwin? Students dressed in wacky outfits. Students who surged forward out of the student section to stand near the edge of the court. Students who ran around the court (Friday night to inspire the wave, which TigerBlog could do without).

What's okay? What's not?

Princeton very much wants to have students at games, and it's not easy to get them there. How many Princeton students who otherwise would have attended the games this weekend were instead competing for their own teams?

At a big state school with, say, 30,000 students, getting 10% of the student body there means 3,000 students in attendance. At Princeton it means fewer than 500.

Princeton does a great deal to promote to the students, with offerings of free admission, sometimes free food, the best seats and other perks. Too much supervision from the athletic department and too many attempts to limit the good time would turn the students off and send them away.

And there is no denying how much the students help the game atmosphere. They just need to keep it clean, and the athletic administration has to figure out a way to manage the situation that fits the right balance.

Of course, having to keep an eye on a huge group of students at games is a pretty good problem to have.

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