Thursday night’s Henlopen North boys basketball playoff game between Smyrna and Cape Henlopen was ended with 4:02 remaining after a brawl erupted between at least one Cape Henlopen player and at least one spectator at the Milford Central Academy gym.
Brad Myers/The News Journal
Pandemonium struck in the final minutes of the Henlopen Northern Division Championship game Feb. 22.
What had started as a typical contest between the Cape Henlopen and Smyrna boys basketball teams ended in a wave of violence, when an enormous brawl broke out with just over four minutes remaining on the clock.
Players, coaches and spectators flooded the court in attempts to break up the madness, but punches still flew and blood splattered in parts of the gymnasium.
Following the fight, multiple people were charged by Milford police, including a Cape Henlopen player.
The charges ranged from disorderly conduct to assault, according to police reports, and although the incident was the most severe to date in the 2017-18 season, it certainly wasn’t the first to happen on a Delmarva basketball court.
Since the opening games of the high school basketball season, fights and disturbances have broken out throughout the region.
The most common element is the amount of spectator involvement in these incidents.
“I think as school administrators, we now have to prepare, particularly with boys basketball — the fans are right on top of everything,” Stephen Decatur High School principal Tom Zimmer said. “The fans believe they know the game. They can hear what the players and officials are doing, and I guess because they pay for a ticket, they feel they can give opinions.”
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On Feb. 12, the James M. Bennett Clippers traveled to Decatur for a critical 3A East matchup. Throughout the game, several technical fouls were handed out by referees, while school officials and police were forced to stop the game multiple times due to disorderly fan conduct.
At the conclusion of the match, several people stormed the court prepared to fight, while officers and teachers attempted to break up the crowd. No arrests were made during the event.
Weeks later, at a Mardela and Washington girls’ playoff game, a similar incident occurred, when Mardela’s team was escorted into the locker room following the game’s end for its own protection.
Washington players were forced into their own locker room due to disorderly conduct, while the team’s fans shouted obscenities, blaming the officials for the season-ending loss.
Mardela team members were confined to their locker room for more than 20 minutes while officials and police tried to control the disturbance.
Multiple incidents have taken place throughout the season, but they have not gone unnoticed by regional and state officials.
In Wicomico County, school administrators held an event management seminar designed specifically to address the recent altercations that have taken place this season.
Paul Butler, the director of communications and community outreach for Wicomico County Public Schools, said the Wicomico Board of Education brought in Jay Hammes, president of Safe Sports Zone, to speak with District 8 coaches and athletic directors.
Wi-Hi fans cheer during a game against Parkside on Monday, Feb. 26, 2018. (Photo: Staff Photo by Ralph Musthaler)
Hammes talked about how to prevent altercations from happening during athletic events.
In the seminar, Hammes referenced an Indiana high school sports poll from January 2018. According to the results, game ejections in the state were up 19 percent for players, 29 percent for coaches and 75 percent among fans.
Although the numbers are not as extreme in every state, Hammes said the spike in altercations at athletic events is happening nationwide.
“There is so much anger in this country right now, and we are seeing a spike in ejections across the country,” Hammes said. “When you go to these games and you get a parent that’s put in an emotional environment, anger seems to surface fairly quickly. What we’re trying to do is train school officials how to handle that.”
Ensuring a safe environment
Throughout Wicomico schools, Supervisor of Athletics Bryan Ashby is pleased with the preparation he and his staff conduct prior to any game with the help of police assistance.
Rather than react when altercations take place, Ashby said his team takes a proactive mentality.
“One of the things we do is if we have a team that’s traveling, we try and send support staff to different venues so we can work collaboratively,” Ashby said. “We’re trying not to work on this in isolation. All the supervisors in the Bayside and District 8 work together to make sure everyone has a positive sporting experience.”
Wicomico County Sheriff’s Deputy David Owens is often present at sporting events as a police presence and father to a Bennett High School girls basketball player.
Knowing emotions are high and passionate fans fill the gymnasium, Owens said he is often on high alert, monitoring spectators throughout the game. But through the training Ashby and others instill in the officers, Owens said he’s always well prepared.
“We’ve had two really intense training events this year in regard to crowd control,” Owens said. “Are there things past your control? Yeah, but you prepare for that. It’s a sporting event, and everybody’s passionate.”
The social media factor
But when the first whistle blows, it’s the players and coaches that are on the front lines, more frequently this season thinking about their team’s safety rather than the outcome of the game.
With fans seated directly behind team benches, harassment, foul language and overall mocking has taken place without interference.
Matthew Mayette, first-year coach for the Mardela boys basketball team, said social media played a huge factor in the recent spike in brawls.
Veteran Bayside Conference referees Jack Pond and Chuck Gould chat about a call during a game on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017 at Wi-Hi. (Photo: staff photo by Mitchell Northam)
Highlight videos, stats and big plays often make up the timelines of Twitter and Facebook feeds following a night of high school hoops. For players, being the one featured in those videos is a top priority, while parents also want to promote their child on several platforms.
“You have a kid who is trying to make the next great play, while you have another kid who is trying to defend their pride, knowing everything is going right to Twitter or social medial,” Mayette said. “I think a lot of people view their kid as the next D1 athlete. We live through our children, and many people want to see their child succeed, so they sit on the edge of their seats at games.”
‘It’s going to take a united front’
For Mayette, a solution starts with the athletic directors.
As the highest authority figure at any athletic event, Mayette said it’s the director’s responsibility to stop the brawls from occurring before they even start.
“It’s going to take a united front,” Mayette said. “(Athletic directors) need to implement stuff within. I don’t think anyone’s really trained. I don’t think we’re effectively trained on situations like (game fights).”
All high school athletic events are overseen by the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association which has a strict set of rules and regulations regarding both spectator and player behavior throughout any contest.
However, according to Bayside Conference bylaws, any problem will be referred to that county’s superintendent for discipline. Bayside operates directly under the MPSSAA.
MPSSAA Director of Communications Bill Reinhardt said that local officials have full authority over any disciplinary action or training that takes place throughout the regular season.
In regards to crowd control, the bylaws state that the home team is responsible for any actions that take place on the grounds, while providing adequate supervision. There is no mention of any training coaches or administrators are required to have.
“It’s hard. It’s gotten difficult,” Zimmer said. “It seems like people in our society today are quick to react in a negative way to something they don’t like. We’ve had to take a look this year in particular at increase in security.”
Though the high school hoops season is nearly finished, officials continue to prepare for the event of a physical altercation.
For coaches and administrators, the ultimate goal is the safety of athletes and those in attendance. Whether it’s through more training seminars or added security, many associated with high school athletics agreed, something must change.
“It’s affecting our game,” Hammes said. “We’re losing good officials because of that behavior. We’re losing good coaches who have said they’ve had enough of this. In general, it’s just not going the right way. The importance of high school activities is crucial to the country. We need these events, and we have to maintain a safe environment.”
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