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San Francisco Chronicle Quotes Dr. Williams: 'They Were in Tears': Unruly Fans Force California High Schools to Take Action


The entire article can be read here: ‘They were in tears’: Unruly fans force California high schools to take action (

For a week after she was the victim of a racist taunt during a girls soccer regional championship game in March, Ciara Wilson barely left her house.

The soccer field had long been her haven. Now, as video of the heckling went viral, the Buchanan High School (Fresno County) senior was missing school to emotionally recover.

“I told her to just take the time she needed,” Ciara’s mother, Rachel Wilson, told The Chronicle. “It was so tough. The spotlight was on her.”

Since spectators began returning to sporting events last year after a 15-month, pandemic-related absence, numerous incidents of fan misconduct at all levels have made national news. Northern California high schools are no exception. With the rate of episodes involving bad fan behavior seemingly at an all-time high, the California Interscholastic Federation has implemented multiple guidelines to foster a safer game-day environment for student-athletes, coaches and referees.

The question is whether those changes will be enough to prevent incidents like the one Wilson endured and bolster lagging officiating numbers. Dave Cutaia, assigning secretary for the Contra Costa Football Officials Association, said poor fan behavior has been the No. 1 reason more and more referees have quit in recent months.

The CCFOA has had to bring in officials from other regions and use four-referee crews instead of the usual five. Even then, several Bay Area high school football games were postponed this season because of a lack of officials.

“The numbers just aren’t there, and that’s really the case in every association in California and the U.S.,” Cutaia said. “To officiate a freshman game, you get paid $72. I don’t know a lot of people who are going to go out there for $72 and listen to somebody insult or berate them for no good reason.”

More than a dozen Northern California high school referees, coaches and administrators contacted for this story said they’ve noticed fan behavior worsen over the past five years. Just in the past 12 months, there have been a slew of reported incidents involving racist taunts, fighting in the stands, and parents threatening players, officials or coaches.

Cell-phone videos and social media ensure that some episodes that might have otherwise gone overlooked will receive public attention. In May, video went viral of Buhach Colony High School (Merced County) parents confronting and fighting an umpire in the parking lot after a baseball game.

But given that the circumstances around each episode have varied, it can be difficult to pinpoint the specific reasons behind the decline in spectator decorum.

Rafael Sevilla, the athletic director and varsity co-ed soccer coach at Fall River High School in McArthur (Shasta County), said he believes the proliferation of travel-ball teams is partly to blame.

A study from Wintergreen Research estimated the pre-pandemic value of the U.S. youth-sports economy, which encompasses everything from private instruction to apps that organize leagues, at $19.2 billion. With parents investing more money than ever in their children’s athletic success, they sometimes forget that high school sports are supposed to be about fun and personal growth.

There is also the fact that club sporting events are less regulated than high school ones. After so much time at Amateur Athletic Union games, some parents might be surprised to see that the jawing that was acceptable at a summer tournament can get them ejected at their kids’ high school game.

Then there is the matter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Studies suggest that an extended absence from the classroom hurt learning, and many high school coaches believe the same is true for fan behavior.

It’s not just that all that time at home made people less comfortable in social situations. According to the World Health Organization, anxiety and depression spiked by 25% in the U.S. during the pandemic. This could help explain why some fans appear more irritable.

“We know that the pandemic caused more dramatic symptoms in emotional disorders like anxiety and depression,” said Dr. Vernon Williams, a sports neurologist at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles. “When those things are present, people will respond differently to the same kind of stressors and pressures that they had previously been exposed to. They won’t have the same kind of resilience.”

Ron Nocetti, the CIF’s executive director, has seen incidents of bad fan behavior throughout his three-plus decades working in high school sports. But he said that he has heard about more problems with spectators lately, which he attributes to what he calls a “trickle-down effect.”

Seldom do more than a couple of days pass without an episode of fan misconduct in pro or college sports capturing national attention. Just in November, an LSU football fan was ejected for refusing to leave the end zone after his team’s upset of Alabama; a fan at that same game was arrested for assaulting a police officer; Premier League team Southampton FC tossed 120 fans from a game against Everton for bad behavior, and 17 Wisconsin students were ejected from the Badgers’ football win over Maryland.

“If you look at college sporting events and professional sporting events, behavior over time has deteriorated,” Nocetti said. “I think it has trickled down to the high school level. With our schools, we need to continue to reinforce that this is education-based athletics.

“If you think behaving inappropriately in the stands is going to be accepted in high school sports by our administrators any longer, that’s just not the case.”

In May 2020, while high school sports were shuttered amid the pandemic, the CIF introduced a policy that any fan ejected from one of its high school games also must miss his or her team’s next game. Those suspensions increase the more a fan is tossed.

Public-address announcers are required to read a PSA before games that outlines punishments for bad fan behavior. To curb incidents, the CIF started handing out a “sportsmanship toolkit” to member schools this past fall that includes an online sportsmanship course, code-of-conduct forms and public-service announcements.

Nocetti said feedback from schools indicates that those adjustments have been helpful for many coaches and administrators. Though Cutaia remains dismayed by the plummeting number of officials, he has seen signs that fans are more aware of the problem.

After a handful of football games this season, parents and students sought him out to shake his hand and thank him for his work — efforts that rarely occurred before the pandemic. It helps that some school administrators have gone beyond CIF requirements to improve fan decorum.

During Fall River High’s fall sports meeting in August, Sevilla told parents that anyone asked to leave a game won’t be allowed back at a school-sanctioned sporting event unless they complete an online course about fan behavior.

“I had a bunch of people looking at me like I was crazy,” said Sevilla, who had seen many incidents of unruly fans in nearby communities since spectators began returning to games post-pandemic. “It just set the tone.”

After reading the CIF-provided PSA at Fall River High games last school year, Sevilla figured that the message might mean more coming from the student-athletes. Ten drafts later, he had a three-paragraph script welcoming fans to the game, reminding them that both teams deserve support and respect, and asking spectators to “please remember that this game is for us, the students.”

While visiting Fall River High in late August as part of his annual tour of the CIF’s various sections, Nocetti became emotional as he watched students read that updated PSA before a volleyball match and a football game. Today, Sevilla’s script is read at high schools throughout the state.

“I got goosebumps when I first heard kids read it because this was one thing that education-based athletics does for our kids,” Nocetti said. “It puts kids in positions of leadership. It puts them in positions of influence. It helps athletes take ownership of their own event.”

Still, work remains. The incident Wilson experienced at the Division I NorCal Regional girls soccer championship game in March underscored the issues in prep sports — not just with fan behavior, but with officials and school administrators.

Buchanan High had overcome ACL injuries to three starters and a COVID-19 outbreak to reach the title game. On Buchanan’s second penalty kick, a loud barking noise came from Oak Ridge’s stands as Daisy Torres — a Hispanic player — missed her shot.

With penalty kicks tied at 1-1, a gorilla-like hoot came from Oak Ridge’s crowd just as Wilson was about to strike the ball. She was the only African American on either team. After making the penalty kick, Wilson — a Fresno Bee Co-Player of the Year who declined to be interviewed for this story — broke down in tears, her hands trembling as she tried to process what just happened.

While her father and older brother walked toward Oak Ridge’s stands and demanded to see who did the heckling, Buchanan High coach Jasara Gillette pleaded for referees to stop the game until the taunt’s perpetrator was removed. This wasn’t the first time someone from the predominantly white school in an affluent suburb of Sacramento had harassed student-athletes of color.

During a girls’ playoff basketball game against McClatchy High School (Sacramento County) in 2016, Oak Ridge fans directed racial and body-shaming jeers at McClatchy’s Asian American players. Referees are instructed to pause the action in such situations until a school administrator has removed the offending fans. If the fans can’t be removed for whatever reason, officials are supposed to suspend the game and leave.

But during that Division I NorCal Regional girls’ soccer championship game, officials continued with the penalty kicks after two racist taunts. Gillette knew then that her team had no chance of winning.

“Our players were completely distraught,” said Gillette, whose squad lost the penalty-kick shootout 4-2. “Penalty kicks require all your focus, and they were in tears. The whole situation was completely ridiculous.”

Oak Ridge principal Aaron Palm told The Chronicle that the student responsible for the heckling received “steep consequences,” but declined to reveal the punishment, citing minor privacy laws. “We understand that we have to be better,” Palm wrote in an email.

In the incident’s immediate aftermath, Wilson struggled to handle all the newfound attention: interviews with local TV stations, numerous shares of the video, racist online comments. After staying home for a week, she returned to school and tried to move past her trauma.

As a freshman on Fresno State women’s soccer team this past season, Wilson started eight games, recording two assists and playing 679 minutes.

“You can tell she still has feelings about everything that happened,” Rachel Wilson said. “It still weighs on her chest a bit.

“Life moves on, but we still live with it. We still carry it with us.”