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University must enforce an attitude adjustment in fans

Kurt Streeter

January 31, 2008|Kurt Streeter

Because of my deep family ties to the University of Oregon and my long-held sense of Eugene as an open-minded and tolerant place, the ugly, bigoted way that some Ducks fans behaved during the men's basketball home game last week against UCLA was an embarrassment.

That feeling, and my outrage, deepened when a school spokesman said after the game that little could have been done to keep unruly fans from yelling whatever they pleased.

So it was good to hear a humbled Pat Kilkenny, Oregon's athletic director, tell me that he would do what's right if this happened again. If they crossed the line, as happened last week, he'd be willing to kick verbally abusive fans out of gyms and stadiums, 1st Amendment be damned.

Now he must follow through. And now, since Oregon is far from the first place where fans have run amok, it's time for other universities, and the NCAA, to clamp down on spectators who fill college stadiums with hateful banners and verbal poison.

This all started last Thursday, when some unruly fans turned Oregon's venerable McArthur Court -- a basketball shrine virtually unchanged since my late father played forward for the Ducks in the early 1950s -- into a hotbed of bitterness.

The target was Kevin Love, the gifted freshman who grew up near Portland but left his home state last year for Westwood.

Some Ducks fans, lost in their immaturity, view Love as a traitor. From the warm-ups to the final seconds, they heaped scorn on the Bruins' No. 42 and his family.

There's cheering and booing that is within the bounds of civility. But sometimes it goes out of bounds, into a realm society should not condone. You know it when you see it, know it when you hear it.

This was out of bounds.

There were stabs at Love's looks, at his mother, father and the history of mental illness in his family.

This was disgusting.

What drew my ire the most were reports of long, loud, homophobic chants directed at UCLA's young center.

This was bigotry. Imagine a stadium full of a chant that ended with the n-word. Imagine a Jewish player being laced with anti-Semitic barbs, or a white player getting blitzed for his fair skin. No difference here.

The homophobic taunts could be classified in a court of law as hate speech: fighting words, the kind of words that, spoken on a street corner, are too often a prelude to violence. In fact, violence may well have been prevented during the Bruins victory only by security that gathered near Love's family.

It got worse when, after the game, an Oregon spokesman leaned on the 1st Amendment and said that while the behavior was disgusting, fans had a right to free speech.

That's a university wanting a frenzied home-court advantage, but not wanting to tell out-of-control fans what's what. That's hiding behind the law, an institution not wanting to do the right thing because it's afraid of a suit.

I spoke with Duke professor Erwin Chemerinsky, one of the nation's leading legal scholars, and told him that Oregon officials feared trampling on the rights of fans who spewed verbal bile during games.

He said they were wrong, morally and legally. So long as a university did not further punish fans by, say, tossing offending students out of school, pulling them from a game or limiting access would be within legal limits.

"It's a minimal infringement of speech," the professor said. It's "minimal to lose your privilege to be at a basketball game. Because of that, if this ended up in a trial [over free speech], the courts would side with Oregon."

At least the Oregon athletic director appears ready to step up and take a swing at the problem.

Kilkenny told me about how he'd admonished students after the game. Never again, he told them.

But these are college kids, I reminded. College kids don't always listen to their elders. Plus, it reportedly wasn't just students involved. What happens if what you tell them goes unheeded?

Unruly fans, he said, would be "closely monitored." They should be told that there would be "all kinds of repercussions" for their actions.

Monitored? Repercussions? How about kicking the bums out? Will you do that, or not?

Yes, he said, he would. "I think you just remove them during the game if what they said was incredibly bad."

That's a promise? That's something your chancellor and school leadership will back you on?

Again, he answered in the affirmative. This is "something within our purview to do," he said. "As far as I know, they would support us if that type of aggressive behavior" cropped up again.

I'll be watching. Just as I'll be watching, and ready to lay down the hammer in this space, if fans at L.A. schools cross the line and enter the realm of hate speech.

For now, at least, my personal embarrassment and anger have eased. My roots in Oregon run deep. Four generations of my family count the U of O as their alma mater, going back to my grandfather in the 1920s. Many of them still reside in Eugene.

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