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Proposed Wisconsin Bare-Chested Fan Ban Should Be Approved

You may have read about a vote by the sportsmanship committee of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA)  to ban bare-chested spectators and fans who paint their chest at indoor high school sporting events. The proposal will be voted on soon by the WIAA's governing board.

In my view, the WIAA is doing the right thing.

Tom Shafranski, the WIAA Assistant Executive Director, has been quoted in numerous newspapers stating, "High school students can't bare their chests in class, so there's no reason for them to do it at indoor sporting events."

Tom's right - but he's too kind. His kindness opens the WIAA up for criticism from people who kind of like to see bare-chested fans and fans who paint their chests. Let's face it - it's fun to see nutty fans all painted up. It kind of adds to the character of the contest. Still, Tom's right. There's no role for this in youth and interscholastic sports, not because kids can't go to school without wearing shirts, but because its actually bad sportsmanship.

Yes, Bare-Chested Fans is A Sportsmanship Issue

Part of the mission of youth and high school sports is to teach kids that the individual is subordinate to the collective/team. This educational point is, of course, in constant tension with the desire for programs, parents, athletes and spectators to identify and groom elite athletes. 

We relish the fact that the local CYO has an 8th grade "C" league for the less athletic lads. We also savor the stories of the five average small town kids who beat the big city boys in the state basketball tournament. At the same time, we do our utmost to identify the elite players and get them on the club volleyball team, the softball travel team, and the AAU basketball team. We then turn around and wonder why talented and non-talented kids alike are quitting team sports at an amazing rate and turning to non-spectator sports like skateboarding, and BMX Cycling where they are free of the pressure and expectations of parents, spectators, and youth and high school coaches.

We are at our best when we remember that youth sports is a fun activity that has little to do with individual aggrandizement. We attempt to do this in ways that a neutral observer would find strange. High school state associations take sports that the average spectator would think is an individual sport and turn them into team sports. Yes, we have team tennis in interscholastic sports. Roger Federer alone could not prevail. It is the collective that we honor. Indeed, my state, California, doesn't even have an individual tennis championship. We only honor a team champion. Roger Federer alone would stay home.

Nothing is pure, though. I must confess that I run a sports league that has a ninety year history of selecting an All City team in a multitude of sports, and I am proud to honor our old-timers when they enter the Prep Hall of Fame. Roger Federer alone may not be able to compete for a state title, but my league and my region of California would still give Roger a medal for being number one in the individual tournament. The trophy and the end-of-tournament accolades, though, still belong to the team. Even in our non-pure moments, though, we insist that our All City players be of sterling character, and our Hall of Famers be good citizens and display the spirit of the collective team.

It is part of the educational mission of youth and high school sports to teach spectators - especially student spectators - that their role is to be positive supporters of the team. That role does not extend to becoming a sideshow, acting in a way that draws attention to themselves, or engaging in conduct that distracts from the contest itself. In short, if we discourage individual self-promotion in individual participants, we must also discourage spectator self-promotion from the spectators. Regulating bare-chested spectators is simply part of the educational mission of youth and high school sports.

You'd Be Amazed At Some of The Things That Are Regulated

Youth sport and school sport personnel sometimes regulate the darndest things:

  • There are high school leagues that ban noisemakers.

  • There are high school leagues that won't let you sit in the other team's rooting section; they'll literally send security in and pull you out.

  • There are leagues that regulate pre-game and post-game rituals - sometimes with good cause. A few years ago a Washington, D.C. football team thought they were being taunted by their opponent so they ran on the field and beat them up. Turns out the opposing team was jjust engaging in a traditional ritual post-game dance at midfield. League officials told them to do their dance on the sideline in the future. Sage advice. A football team  in my league did a Samoan ritual pre-game dance. I told the team to face their sideline instead of facing the other team, and I had the game officials warn the team they'd flag them for unsportsmanlike conduct if they ever faced their opponent when they did their ritual dance.

Admittedly, some of the things that get regulated do limit individual expression. Some of them do stop things that are fun. The people who regulate them are busy people who probably aren't always trying to reinforce a philosophy of being against individual self-promotion. Often, they are just reacting to self-promotion and attention grabbing gone bad - either because it created a security issue or because someone went too far with their unregulated freedom to express themselves.

As always, we must acknowledge that nobody is pure. Nobody bars the band. Who would want to? However, even bands are regulated. Page 83 of the2007-09 NFHS Basketball Officials Manual states quite clearly, "Do not permit any artificial noisemakers. Bands and other music may only be played during pregame, time-outs, intermission and post-game."

Wisconsin Is Getting It Right

In the end, I think the proposed Wisconsin bare-chested spectator ban is the right thing to do. We don't have a perfect sports world, and. yes, we're often inconsistent, but we should acknowledge that the Wisconsin rule is a proper expression of how spectators should comport themselves at a youth or interscholastic contest. I hope the Wisconsin Board of Control votes in favor of the ban on bare-chested spectators.