Rushing the court(house)

BY GREG SKIDMORE

Much has been written about the despicable brawl that occurred two weeks ago during the Pistons-Pacers NBA game. Some have blamed the players for going into the stands; others have accused the Detroit fans of causing the fight by throwing both insults and objects. The league acted swiftly, handing out player suspensions, and civil and criminal liability will soon be determined. But the fallout from this travesty will reach far beyond the NBA. Officials in all sports and at all levels will now have to reevaluate their policies so that both fans and players can co-exist in the safest environment possible.

College basketball will confront this new reality beginning this week, as teams begin regular season play. Student sections across the nation will attempt to intimidate opposing teams with taunting yells and intense noise. College fans pride themselves on “getting inside the heads” of the opposing players, and at the end of the game, the fans often feel as much a part of the victory or defeat as the five players on the court.

After some games, this means that fans “rush the court” – or run out of the stands to celebrate with the team on the arena floor. Often seen after upset victories or come-from-behind wins, rushing the court has become a traditional end-of-game ritual, seen nightly on ESPN and repeated on campuses everywhere. But the practice is far from safe. Rushing the court has been decried by coaches concerned for their players’ safety and by announcers fearful of being trampled under the melee. Students have been injured, at both high school and college games, by their fellow fans streaming out of the bleachers.

In the wake of the Pistons-Pacers brawl, rushing the court seems to bring even greater dangers. Interactions between fans and players, once restricted to verbal banter, have now escalated to physical violence. It seems only a matter of time before fanatical students rushing the court confront emotional players headed toward the locker room, resulting in a scene reminiscent of Detroit. Or worse, a student brandishing a weapon could cause a tragedy that makes last Friday’s brawl pale in comparison.

It remains to be seen how universities and arenas will deal with this new reality. To date, few universities have taken measures to prevent students from rushing the court. A few colleges have tried barricades such as bicycle racks or ropes and the University of Florida has threatened to ban from future games any student coming onto the court, but these are currently the exceptions. Will this season see a renewed effort to end this dangerous practice?

If not, the host school and the arena could both be held liable for any injuries that result. Arena management has the duty to provide a safe environment for all players and patrons, before, during, and after the game. Numerous courts have held that spectators at sporting events assume the risk of injuries that are related to the sport (i.e., a foul ball at a baseball game, a stray golf ball or hockey puck). However, at least one court has held that the owner of a sports facility has a duty to use due care to remove risks that are not inherent in the sport. Rushing the court seems to fall into this latter category, increasing the potential for arena liability. In addition, the NBA brawl has arguably made such dangers reasonably foreseeable. While arenas on college campuses do not serve alcohol, tenacious college students often need little fuel to hurl verbal insults. It may not take much for an emotionally-charged player to respond in a manner similar to Ron Artest: attack first and think later.

There are many potential solutions for colleges and athletic departments. NBA arenas now bring in extra security to ensure that fans remain in the seating area and off the court. There is no reason why college arenas could not provide the same level of protection. At Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, stadium officials use a simple system to keep students in the stands. At the buzzer, a rope is quickly stretched across both sides of the student section. While seemingly a small deterrent, the rope holds the students back, allowing both teams to shake hands and leave the floor.

In addition to being proactive, colleges could also deter rushing the court by punishing any student coming onto the playing area. Punishments could include banishment from future games or even disciplinary action at the university level. It could also be cause for a criminal trespassing charge. Moreover, at many schools, coaches have a considerable amount of influence on their student sections. Last season, Maryland coach Gary Williams gave a speech to his students, asking them to refrain from yelling obscene chants and wearing t-shirts with profanity. If Williams, or a coach with similar stature, asked his students not to rush the court, many fans would comply.

Universities have incredible liability at stake – anyone injured in such an incident will not sue the student, because the university or arena surely has “deeper pockets.” In order to protect themselves, schools and arenas should take the steps necessary to keep student fans where they belong – off the court and in the stands. It should not take a grave injury for colleges to act – if universities act now, injuries can be avoided and everyone can celebrate in a safe atmosphere.

Greg Skidmore is a 3L who rushed the court several times during his four years at Duke. Read more about sports and the law at http://sports-law.blogspot.com.

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