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Err ball: Where the WIAA (but mostly everybody else) went wrong

Germantown student fans heckle Homestead’s Jacob Urban (10) as he prepares to inbound the ball last March. The WIAA’s sportsmanship tenets, especially as it relates to specific chants and cheers, came under fire nationally this week.

Germantown student fans heckle Homestead’s Jacob Urban (10) as he prepares to inbound the ball last March. The WIAA’s sportsmanship tenets, especially as it relates to specific chants and cheers, came under fire nationally this week. Photo By Peter Zuzga

Jan. 13, 2016

Local newscasts are flashing the word "banned" on their screen to accentuate what's going on, and Sports Illustrated is taking the WIAA to task. Everybody is weighing in (usually on one side). ESPN college basketball commentator Jay Bilas is tweeting "acceptable" chants in the state of Wisconsin (and they're pretty hilarious). Even conservative commentators are decrying the next step in the wussification of America.

It's been a crazy few days for the organizing body of high-school athletics in Wisconsin, with the WIAA coming under national (and international) fire for "banning" canonical cheers at sporting events, including time-honored classics such as "air ball," "fundamentals" and even the seemingly passive "you can't do that."

But people: this is nowhere near as bad as it seems.

It all stems from the tweet heard round the world by Hilbert athlete April Gehl, who was suspended for five games when she used a swear word to express her dissatisfaction with an email sent by the WIAA and re-printed a portion of that email. The tweet has now been re-tweeted more than 1,000 times and "liked" more than 3,000 times. For her, this has to be a surreal adventure indeed.

But here's an important primer about what has transpired:

1. There have been no bans.The email sent to schools just before Christmas by the WIAA was to re-emphasize sportsmanship and listed a few things below the standard of good sportsmanship. The WIAA occasionally sends out these reminders for a number of topics, and it so happens that sportsmanship is on the front burner this year. The email did not call for schools to "ban" these cheers or remove spectators using them. They were simply guidelines, designed for game managers and athletic directors to help discern what questionable sportsmanship might look like. Nobody is getting kicked out of a gym for saying "air ball," although the hubbub itself may prompt game managers to be more vigilant in the near future, oddly enough.

2. These guidelines aren't new. Best I can tell, the guidelines itemizing 29 things that can be deemed "bad sportsmanship" were last touched in 2011, and maybe have been in place for years before that. The WIAA developed a sportsmanship committee in 1997. We're hearing about it now because of a fluky series of events — the tweet and the email reminder — but nothing has changed. That's important because we've seen how high-school events have operated in the years between 2011 and now, and we therefore know that game managers have very liberally interpreted the guidelines. Maybe it's a "don't ask, don't tell" policy or simple common sense, but there was no reason to think game-night environments would have changed — until, of course, this became a national story. Now, you put students, other spectators and game managers in an awkward position where the enforcement of these guidelines becomes an expectation.

3. They ARE just guidelines, not rules. The sportsmanship committee basically brainstormed every way possible a fan could be interpreted as showing poor sportsmanship and put it on paper. The goal was to give athletic directors some sort of framework so they had some backing documentation if there was some question about a given behavior. "Some members had expressed a request for what cheers or chants are outside the definition of good sportsmanship," WIAA Director of Communications Todd Clark said. "In addition, it provided reference for schools to be uniform in determining expectations at schools throughout the state." The wave is on the list. Body paint is on the list. An attached document outlines an extremely high standard of expectations for parents. It tried to tackle every possible way to cross the line. Nowhere does it suggest a punishment or method of determent. It's just a bunch of potential red flags, usable if one or two spectators gets out of hand and some wording is in place to give a game manager ample reason to have that spectator warned or removed.

4. The schools get to make the call. Each school manages its crowds differently and has varying thresholds of "problematic." One athletic director I talked to boiled his own operation down to three simple rules: don't dive into personal attacks, don't use bad language and stay off the floor. The rest is in bounds, and he expects to continue operating his gym as such. At his school, he works with student leaders to discuss what should be acceptable, what can reasonably be expected to draw the attention of game managers, etc., and there's reason to believe many schools operate similarly. Is it possible, in the wake of this, that a student gets kicked out of a gym for using one of those chants? It is, yes. But that's ultimately on the school for (suddenly?) preferring a strict interpretation of these guidelines.

5. The guidelines aren't uncommon, just very specific. You'll find similar sportsmanship documents on web sites of other school associations around the country. Indiana and Minnesota, in particular, have lengthy files that include a number of suggestions and expectations, some of which would be seen as over-the-top if applied in a letter-of-the-law sort of way. The documents stop short of listing specific cheers, such as "air ball" and "fundamentals," but it's completely reasonable to imagine that they're covered in the more generic language employed by other states.

6. Because let's be honest, "air ball" isn't great sportsmanship. Obviously, 98 percent of people hearing about this issue think "air ball" is one of the least offensive examples thrown around. It does not, for most people (myself included) fall into the "problematic" category if a student section wants to repeatedly remind a player of a bad shot. But is it questionable sportsmanship? Of course it is. It's a systematic, repeated, loudly broadcast reminder of an opponent's failure. That's pretty much a textbook definition. Which is all it is, because it's obviously widely accepted and, heck, maybe even motivation for the player in question. But you're not going to win an award for sportsmanship by using it, much like I can't call myself a textbook-safe driver if I drive 10 miles an hour over the speed limit. It doesn't mean I'm getting a ticket.

7. The WIAA shouldn't have mentioned "air ball," though. In its reminder email (the WIAA sends these on a regular basis), I'm guessing the WIAA wanted to itemize the most extreme examples as a way of saying, "Yes, these can be considered bad sportsmanship, also." But it would have been a little more instructive to itemize more sensible examples, such as the use of a player's name or personal information, profanity, directing "you suck" or related sentiments toward referees or opposing players, etc. The use of extremes proved to be the spark that lit the fire, though I don't know how anyone could have seen it coming from something as harmless as a reminder email.

8. The WIAA also needs a better PR approach. The WIAA's social media presence remains a work-in-progress. The organizing body has been slow to adopt Twitter in a meaningful and useful way, though the hiring of a new social media specialist in July should help. As the controversy hit a crescendo on Tuesday, the WIAA Twitter account re-tweeted an article by Wissports.net general manager Travis Wilson. I liked the article — it was even used as his "State of Play" column on our website and in our papers — but that tweet sent the impression that the WIAA was doubling down on its policies rather than clearing up any misconceptions. Schools received an email late Tuesday apologizing for some of the issues, but nothing was released on the WIAA website or sent outwardly to media for dissemination until Wednesday morning. I get that just about anything the WIAA will say could be picked apart by the masses, and this may very well be a no-win situation. But responding sooner — perhaps even earlier than Tuesday, as the story was already out there over the weekend — could have quelled the outrage. Also, it may have helped if Hilbert had elected to classify Gehl's offense as something meriting less than a five-game ban, which is equivalent to suspensions handed out for much worse offenses.

9. Calm down about the wussification of America.The immediate step for many is to assume this is part of a larger problem, the "give everyone a trophy" mentality that appears to be pervading all aspects of competition, especially because it comes from an organization that many have assigned as "bureaucratic" (and they've been pretty helpful to me over the years, answering every question I have and not hiding behind their policies). Even before the WIAA has a chance to address the outrage or even re-assess regulations or anything on paper, the world is jumping down its throat for — God forbid — attempting to create a stronger environment of sportsmanship at its events. That'swhat's changed over time, the fact that a girl from Hilbert High School (enrollment: 134) can offer an opinion on social media and unwittingly make the news in England. There is a major rush to find morsels of info and immediately assume it's the next sign that society is going to hell, and it's never been easier to find those examples around the globe. Stack up three or four minor examples from different corners of the country, and it's a trend. At least give the WIAA a chance to say something, correct something if need be, before assuming it's trying to destroy the fan experience.

10. "USA" does not mean what you think it means.One site was specifically honing in on the "U-S-A" chant in being critical of the WIAA. Yeah, that doesn't mean what you think it does. Which is why it's helpful to have so many guidelines on paper. As one athletic director put it, kids will stay 10 steps ahead of the adults in the creativity department. It's hard to precisely know what's being referenced, and the more examples you have of questionable behavior, the more equipped game managers can be to keep a situation from getting out of hand.

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