LAWRENCE — Athletic teams may prefer home field or court advantage, but where do they draw the line between supportive and violent fans? A University of Kansas professor has co-authored a study examining a branded college basketball student fan organization to understand their motivations and to see if common theories on negative fan behavior apply to their actions.
Brian Gordon, assistant professor of health, sport and exercise science, was lead author on a study that closely examined an organized student section at a major university in the Southeast. The members reported a number of behaviors many might find offensive from hurling racial epithets to publicly sharing information about players’ family members. Their motivations varied, though.
The study, which Gordon co-authored with Jeremy Arney of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, is forthcoming in the Journal of Amateur Sport. Gordon, who studies brand identity, marketing, fan engagement and consumer psychology, took interest in branded student sections at college basketball games such as Duke’s “Cameron Crazies,” Michigan State’s “Izzone” and several others. They appeared largely designed to enhance the athletic team’s brand, make a university look good when their games are on television or open avenues for merchandise sales.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I get that, but is there a downside to these groups,’” Gordon said. “You see examples of negative fan behaviors at games to the point where there is property damage or the athletic director and/or coach has to apologize for their behavior.”
To better understand such a group’s actions and motivations, Gordon and Arney studied a branded fan organization that did not have oversight from its university. They attended six basketball games, sitting in the section, performed interviews with group members and joined their email list. In addition to observing behavior at games they asked members why they joined, asked about the group’s structure, positive and negative aspects to membership, the purpose of the group, what sort of behaviors they engaged in at games and if they would behave that way if they weren’t part of the group.
The overriding reason for being part of the group and the tactics they employed was to create a home court advantage.
“A lot of them had very benign reasons for joining, like ‘we get a free T-shirt’ or ‘we get to sit near the court.’ Others said, ‘We’re here to support our student athletes or the team,’” Gordon said. “But many said, ‘We really want to create a home court advantage.’ Or, ‘We want to get inside the opposing players’ heads.’”
The group had more than 1,000 members and a designated hierarchy. While it had leaders like many organizations, perhaps the most unique was the “designated researcher.” One member would study opponents, their players and find whatever they could to “dig up dirt” on players. That included searching arrest records, names of girlfriends, posing as female admirers on personal social media accounts, distributing players’ phone numbers and calling them repeatedly in the lead up to games. The “dirt” often got personal, including finding out one player’s father was a former professional athlete with a drug problem and referring to the player as “crack baby.” The researchers observed use of ethnic and racial slurs toward players and even locating where opposing players’ families were sitting and verbally harassing them. Certain members of the group were responsible for assembling and distributing “dirt sheets” or “cheer sheets” with lists of topics with which to taunt players.
“It always came back to being manifestations of getting inside their head,” Gordon said of the methods and reasoning for the behaviors.
Gordon and Arney wanted to expand on the social-psychological notion of collective action in the study, in addition to simply observing negative behaviors. Researchers and others have long claimed fans will behave poorly because they have anonymity, that people can be unrecognized in a large athletic crowd. But, given that people usually attend sporting events with friends, family and others they know, the authors argue the idea doesn’t hold true. The notion of “cognitive crippling,” or the idea that people in a large crowd are mindless actors, also wasn’t supported by the research. Members of the fan group reported they were very aware of why they did or did not engage in their behaviors.
“They often said ‘I would never say anything to a 6-foot-9, 250-pound jacked athlete. But look how many people I have behind me,’” Gordon said.
Strength in numbers was widely reported as the reason fans felt they could engage in behaviors they wouldn’t normally. The negative actions of those involved could be classified by one of two types of violence: outcome violence or intended violence.
The former was among fans who had no intention going into an event to yell obscenities, threats or slurs at anyone but ended up doing so because of something that happened. Bad calls by officials, opposing fans antagonizing them and opposing players having a good game were common reasons.
Intended violence was the behavior of those who planned from the beginning to resort to such methods to rattle opposing players and influence others around them to do the same.
While branded fan organizations can have a large potential upside for schools and athletic departments, Gordon argues that universities need to be aware that they are more than just a marketing opportunity or chance to look good on TV. Education and oversight are the most important steps a university can take to help prevent negative behavior, he said. Having university or athletic department personnel communicate with fan groups that sportsmanship is important for more than just players is a key step. Many study respondents had little understanding of sportsmanship or how it relates to fans.
Engaging event personnel is important as well, the authors write. In their observations, event personnel never told fans their behavior might be inappropriate, and no one was removed from a game or even warned.
“There was really no oversight from the university administration,” Gordon said. “I think oversight is key. This kind of negative fan behavior can happen across all types of groups, but being involved is the only way you’re going to curtail any of that behavior among branded student fan groups.”