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Breaking the Uprights

Tearing down goal posts after a big victory has been a college tradition for decades. However, in light of safety concerns, school officials say they want students to find a new way to celebrate.
Sunday, November 20, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:59 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

It was 1956. The MU Tigers had just defeated their rival, the University of Kansas Jayhawks, 15-13 in the Homecoming football game. The fans celebrated the win by running onto the field and tearing down the goal posts. The players raised Coach Don Faurot onto their shoulders — after 21 years as head coach of football, he had led his team to victory in his last game.

Fast forward to 2005. On Oct. 22, MU fans tore down the goal posts once again, this time after the Tigers defeated the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers 41-24. Of the hundreds of fans who rushed the field, 21 were arrested for first-degree trespassing. As MU police processed the arrests, the fans’ raucous cohorts carted the stolen goal posts from Faurot Field to Harpo’s, a restaurant on Tenth Street whose storefront has been the home of pillaged posts since 1972, the year after it opened.

MU sophomore A.J. Bayatpour was arrested on Faurot Field when he strayed from the pack of rushing MU fans to taunt Nebraska fans. He said the arrest will not deter him from rushing the field in the future if MU defeats a team he was not expecting it to beat.

“If fans are going to rush the field after a game, I’m going to be there,” Bayatpour said. “You don’t send a message when you arrest somebody. The arrest did absolutely nothing to keep me from ‘first-degree trespassing.’ The cops just stood there until people went out onto the field and just started grabbing people. That proves nothing.”

[photo]

A group of hearty souls trekked through campus en route to the Field House with their trophy, according to a photo caption in the 1987 Savitar yearbook. (BRIAN STALLCOP/Courtesy of the University Archives)

That same day, 700 miles away, a student died in Morris, Minn., as Minnesota fans rushed Cougar Field to celebrate their team’s homecoming victory. Richard Rose of Benton City, Wash., a junior on the University of Minnesota-Morris’ basketball team, became the poster child for the worst that can happen when fan behavior gets out of control.

As fans worked to tear down the goal posts for the first time in history at the small liberal arts college of 2,000 students, Rose was hit by a falling goal post. He died later that day from head trauma.

This year’s destruction of MU’s goal posts was the fifth time it has happened on the Columbia campus since 1997. The last time was two years ago, at another homecoming game, when the Tigers defeated Nebraska 41-24 — for the first time since 1978.

“I rushed the field because I had to,” said MU senior Lauren Brucker. “You had to, or you’d be trampled. The whole field was pretty much covered by fans. It was a big deal, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

The year 2002 was notorious for goal post destruction and rowdy post-game celebrations. An oft-cited example was The Ohio State University’s defeat of the University of Michigan. The ensuing riots and outdoor fires in Columbus, Ohio, resulted in at least 45 arrests.

MU was no different — fans rushed the field after the Tigers defeated Kansas that season 36-12. At 17 collegiate football games nationwide, fans took to the turf to vie for a victory souvenir.

Keeping it safe

The tradition of tearing down goal posts following an upset has become a major safety concern for university and NCAA administrators, prompting the MU athletic department to create a seven-member committee to review post-game security and look for ways to keep fans off the field.

“We’re looking at a long-term solution by conducting research to try to figure out best practices from a protocol standpoint and as far as the facilities themselves,” said Tad Dunn, assistant athletic director for game operations at MU and the person currently directing the committee’s agenda. “We’re looking at the safety of our student athletes and game officials as well as the safety of our fans on the field.”

The committee says it intends to find a way to reduce aggressive fan behavior at MU. Dunn said he has contacted 30 schools in Bowl Championship Series conferences to determine what their field facilities are like, the type of goal posts they have and the post-game policies and procedures they employ.

The committee’s task will not be an easy one. Aggressive fan behavior at collegiate football and basketball games has been on the rise since the 1980s, and MU is not the first to try to understand why.

In February 2003, the NCAA held a special summit to compare experiences of coaches and athletic directors from universities around the country and to establish a list of “best practices” to guide game operations, security and management of fan behavior. Nearly 150 representatives from collegiate athletics convened at the Sportsmanship and Fan Behavior Summit and came up with national policies to be tailored to particular institutions.

The meeting was the brainchild of Vince Dooley, then-athletic-director at the University of Georgia and summit chair, after the goal post tradition hit too close to home. When Georgia defeated the University of Tennessee in October 2000, one girl involved in a melee that brought down the goal posts was almost killed.

“In my 40 years at Georgia, this was the only time the goal posts came down,” Dooley said. “There must have been four or five particular incidents in that one weekend. Something needed to be done. It was getting out of hand.”

The Southeastern Conference has been the most aggressive, instituting a rule in December 2004 that requires schools to pay up to $50,000 if fans enter the field or basketball court during games.

This no-nonsense response is not currently on the table for the Big 12. Bob Burda, assistant commissioner of communications for the Big 12 conference, said member institutions have discussed the idea, but are comfortable dealing with incidents on an individual basis, rather than having conferencewide regulations.

The root of the problem

Some people attribute the escalation in violent fan behavior to the media’s influence. Programs such as ESPN’s SportsCenter include pre- and post-game celebrations as game highlights, publicizing the behavior.

“We’re made more aware of the tradition through media reports,” Burda said. “It’s not uncommon to show fans rushing the field. A video clip of fans rushing the field sort of shows that this is how you celebrate.”

Greg McGarity, senior associate athletic director at the University of Florida, agrees. “It really wasn’t a fad until TV networks publicized it, and it became the thing to do in college football and basketball,” McGarity said. “Unfortunately, they don’t have to deal with the aftermath. They just leave and move onto the next venue.”

Alcohol is another likely factor, according to Ron Stratten, NCAA vice president for education services. Since 1997, he has been the liaison between the NCAA and members of the NCAA’s committee on sportsmanship and ethical conduct, which meets twice a year.

“We’re concerned by drunken behavior in the stands in general,” Stratten said. “It is one thing to look at what do we do with sportsmanship in regards to student athletes and coaches. It is another as far as what to do about people not controlled by the institution. Those people in many cases tend to embarrass the institution. The perception is that this kind of behavior has increased as people seem to think it is their right.”

Related to the sense of entitlement is the feeling of ownership by fans for their team and its playing field.

“There’s a closer association between a team and students in college (than in the NFL),” Bayatpour said. “These are my peers. You’re so proud of them, you just want to rush the field. I’m not going to the goal posts – I just want to run around on the field.”

The fans are not the only ones who like to celebrate after a victory. In the case of MU’s Oct. 22 win against Nebraska, MU’s football players encouraged MU fans to join them on the field.

“I was in attendance, and through first-hand observation, I saw that they had all the security measures in place,” Burda said of MU police. “The players then went into the stands and encouraged fans. Now, educating the football players on proper behavior is necessary, too.”

Burda cites education and communication as the key elements in putting an end to potentially dangerous fan traditions. The Big 12 requires each of its member institutions to send their game management procedures to the conference for review at the beginning of each football season. When an incident such as goal posts being torn down occurs, the conference requires the university in question to file a report describing the incident so the school and the conference can work together to improve the plan in place. Burda said intraconference documents, like the report MU filed after this year’s Nebraska game, are confidential.

A longtime tradition

At one time, the tradition of rushing the field and tearing down goal posts was supported, rather than discouraged, by some universities. In 1942, Brigham Young University fans tore down the posts after defeating rival University of Utah for the first time in 20 years. Members of BYU’s football team are said to have participated in the destruction of the goal posts. The fact that the game was played at Utah’s Salt Lake City campus did not deter BYU fans from their objective. The goal posts were transported to BYU, divided into half-inch pieces and given out to students at a universitywide assembly.

At MU, fans carry the goal posts to Harpo’s, where they occupy the street outside the restaurant, sawing the posts into pieces.

Dennis Harper, who graduated from MU in 1971 and then opened the restaurant, said he provides saws because he expects the crowd to arrive after an upset. He said more than 300 fans came to Harpo’s after this year’s MU-Nebraska game.

“We always have eight to 10 hacksaws ready — I just keep them there for that,” Harper said. “They’re pretty complacent. Everybody’s hacking away. Everybody wants a piece.”

And so does Harpo’s.

“Most of the time through the years, they make sure we get a piece,” Harper said.

He said he does not let the crowd enter the bar and restaurant with the goal posts because many of the fans are under 21 years old and because the large metal pole would create a danger inside.

“I’ve never seen anybody get hurt,” Harper said. “I don’t care what they do with the goal posts.”

Today, university officials staunchly oppose the practice. Game attendance has increased and student fans have become more aggressive, said John Kadlec, who has been associated with MU football since 1947 as a player, coach and current football analyst on the Tiger Radio Network and special assistant to the athletic director. “Wouldn’t it really show a touch of class if you beat (the opposing team), walk away and say, ‘Bring on the next team,’” Kadlec said. “We get too emotional about a victory. The emotion takes the place of happiness, and most of the time, emotion is not controlled.”

Burda, too, ascribes the continuity of the goal-post tradition to what he interprets as the passionate nature of the sport.

“Football is a game of emotion,” he said. “So much time and effort is put into a football game by the players. Following an upset, there is so much emotion coming out and looking for a way to manifest itself. There is a need to celebrate our victory, but coming onto the field is not an appropriate way to celebrate.”

MU’s security practices

MU typically employs about 75 security officers per football game, according to MU police Capt. Scott Richardson. Dunn said the force includes MU police, Columbia police, Boone County sheriff’s deputies, Missouri State Highway Patrol troopers and at least four members of a joint terrorism task team that come from the Kansas City branch of the FBI.

Bayatpour, one of the students arrested at the Nebraska game, was concerned that enforcement resources were not allotted wisely. He said security should have two priorities, protecting the goal posts and helping the visiting team’s players leave the field. He said event staff, rather than state troopers, should have been responsible for escorting Nebraska’s players, so security forces could secure the goal posts before the fans reached them.

“I think the football players can do a better job of protecting themselves than state troopers,” he said. “You can secure the goal posts while the game is still going on. It seemed like they had ample time to do that.”

McGarity said the Gainesville campus in Florida spends $75,000 to $100,000 for security at each football game. Its security plan includes 90 Gainesville police officers, 90 county sheriff’s deputies, 70 university officers, 15 Florida Highway Patrol officers, 350 unarmed security workers including ushers and event staff and four German shepherds. As the end of each game nears, 100 officers surround the field.

“We handle our security at the highest level at all times, regardless of the opponent,” McGarity said. “From a game management standpoint, you don’t want to create the mind-set that this game is not as important as the next game.”

He applauded Florida fans for their game behavior and assistance in identifying problem areas in the stands. He said the security plan has worked to deter fans from rushing the field during his 14 years as senior associate athletic director.

“Our fans expect to win at home, so when we do, it’s not a surprise,” he said. “Our fans have become proactive in alerting security if seating is uncomfortable in some way, and our police officers are proactive in removing people causing problems.”

Florida fans have grown accustomed to calling the operations booth from their cell phones or asking for help from ushers when they encounter disruptive problems in the stands, he said.

McGarity seems to be on the right track in his analysis that the expectation of victory has come to overshadow the practice of rushing the field to celebrate.

Kadlec agrees that MU fans should not be surprised when the Tigers win.

“You’re supposed to win anyway,” Kadlec said.

While Coach Gary Pinkel emphasizes that fan safety is a top priority, he recognizes that it is his duty to the team and the fans to help winning become a familiar phenomenon. “My responsibility is to win enough games so you don’t have people tearing down the goal posts,” Pinkel said.

Safety, not money, is the issue as the MU athletics department works to reduce aggressive fan behavior. MU isn’t worried about the replacement costs, Kadlec said. “We’re worried about what happened in Minnesota.”

“In no shape or form is this about money,” said Bob Stanley, MU’s assistant athletic director for facilities. “There is no price that can be put to the loss of life or to the maiming of an individual. The demonstration of joy and satisfaction that comes with winning a big football game — I find it misplaced to go tear down a goal post.


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