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Cheers or jeers: Do Wharton High fans go too far?

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 01:57 PM

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TAMPA -

When Plant High School parents complained about student fan behavior during a rare volleyball loss at Wharton High, some people said it was just sour grapes from those not used to losing.

It turns out Plant's parents aren't the only ones offended by fan behavior at Wharton.

Linda McDermott, the mother of a Bloomingdale High basketball player, was so appalled by the bullying taunts she heard last winter that she wrote to Lanness Robinson, the athletics director for Hillsborough County schools.

She never heard back.

"Nobody ever called us, wrote us, talked to the coach, talked to the team, nothing," McDermott said recently. "All of the parents were upset with this."

Wharton students and administrators defend themselves, saying they have enthusiastic fans full of school spirit.

"We are just energetic," said Brant Wickersham, student government president and a member of the Wharton cheering section known as the Blue Crew. "We don't consider ourselves bad sports."

But plenty of opposing fans do. And it raises questions about the fine line between good-natured cheering and disrespectful jeering at high school athletics contests.

The state's athletics association has rules and guidelines governing sportsmanship, but it is up to individual schools to police the crowds.

"You cheer for your own team, and that's it," said Justin Harrison, assistant executive director for athletics services for the Florida High School Athletic Association. "You do not cheer against the officials or the opposing team."

That means, he said, students should not make fun of the physical appearances of opposing players or coaches or chant insults or profanities.

"At the high school level, it should not be happening," Harrison said. "We think it's a great thing that some of these schools are getting a great following, but there isn't any place for cheering against someone."

Parents in a variety of sports say that is common at Wharton.

"They seem to be proud of it, and it's ingrained in their culture in the guise of supporting their team," said Libby Libhart, a grandparent of a Durant High School baseball player who witnessed what he thought was poor fan behavior at a Wharton game last spring. "I think it's crossing the line."

One aspect of the Blue Crew is not in dispute: that members love to support their teams vociferously. They show up in their dark blue shirts and root for their teams loudly, no matter the sport.

At a volleyball game Wednesday against Durant, the gymnasium, which proudly declares itself the home of the Wildcats, was filled with chants of "Blue, White" and "Let's go, Wharton," as students rooted their girls on to another win.

It also was filled with questionable comments directed at particular Durant players.

They called one girl who wore a shoulder brace a robot. They made fun of another player's socks — or what appeared to be the lack thereof. When a Durant player hit an impressive kill shot for a point, they chanted, "We don't like you." They also mimicked the body language of the opposing coach and made fun of her when she disputed a line call with the referee.

After being told they could not chant "push it" — which sounds a lot like an obscenity — they offered up "pull it." They jeered the referee when they thought he made a bad line call until he turned and glared at them.

Those are the types of behaviors — more often associated with a college basketball — that have raised the ire of opposing fans and now are being reviewed by the FHSAA.

The association is investigating the Wharton-Plant volleyball game after a parent filed a complaint. Harrison said such complaints are rare among the state's 800 schools.

Jennifer Weston, parent of a Plant volleyball player, filed the complaint after Wharton fans stormed the court and prevented the traditional postgame team handshake. An assistant principal from Wharton also made a questionable comment to a Plant parent — "What, is Plant not used to losing?" — when that parent complained.

Weston also took issue with Wharton fans turning their backs during pregame introductions and with their behavior during the national anthem. She said students laughed and talked during the anthem and then mockingly sang along near the end.

Wharton's principal, Brad Woods, did not return a reporter's phone call this week. He acknowledged the back-turning in his written response to the athletics association.

"This did occur and is something that fans have done in the past, as opposed to booing the opposing team as they are introduced," he said. "If the FHSAA deems that this is unsportsmanlike and should be stopped, I will take the necessary measures to see that it does not happen in the future."

During the Durant High volleyball game Wednesday, students did not turn their backs as the visitors were introduced. They sat quietly instead.

Woods also addressed the national anthem issue with the FHSAA.

"I am very surprised that my students would display this type of behavior and it is out of character based on my experience over the past 4 years as principal," Woods wrote. "Many of our students and fans will sing along with the National Anthem in support of and with pride in our country."

Wickersham, the student government president, said that school officials talked to the Blue Crew after the complaint was filed and told them to rein in their behavior.

At the game against Durant on Wednesday, they stood at attention during the national anthem. Some even chided others for leaving their hats on as the anthem played.

Wickersham said the group sometimes does go too far — such as a sign at a recent game that said, "We love Spandex," a reference to the outfits the girls wear.

"We never really call anyone out," he said. "If they make a mistake, we might say 'air ball.' But it's a fun poking-at."

But that's not the case, say more than a few of the parents of players on opposing teams. They fault Wharton administrators. Bloomingdale's basketball parents say they asked for the student fans to be moved from behind their team's bench, but nothing was done.

William Orr, principal at Hillsborough High, said he can think of maybe a half-dozen cases of obnoxious fan behavior at his school in the past 35 years that prompted some type of action. "I think our kids behave because they know they need to," Orr said. "We let them know what is expected."

Robinson, the Hillsborough County athletics director, said he does not have McDermott's letter in his file and can't recall seeing it. He said any such issue would be addressed between the two school principals involved.

District officials said that the principals of Bloomingdale and Wharton did discuss the matter.

Nick Grasso, the athletics director for Pinellas County schools, said it's important for administrators to keep control of their events.

"We reserve the right to tell people that if they are not displaying sportsmanship, that they need to leave the facility," he said. "It should be a family-friendly environment.

"If there is someone who is inappropriate in their language directed to the kids, I am sure an administrator would step in and take control. When I was a principal, I was not going to tolerate it."

After all, Grasso, formerly the principal at Clearwater High School, said sportsmanship is a must on and off the field.

"That is an expectation. It's not winning at all costs. This is high-school athletics," he said. "That is part of something we should teach kids; that should be an expectation statewide."

In his response to the FHSAA, Woods, the Wharton principal, promised there would not be a repeat of students storming the court after a victory.

"I have spoken with all of our administrative staff regarding our need to be more diligent in helping to ensure the safety of both teams, officials and fans by informing students, through PA announcements, that they are not to enter the playing area anytime before, during or after a contest," he wrote.

Wednesday night, when the volleyball game against Durant ended, students flowed onto the court to celebrate — but only after the postgame handshake was done.

Libhart, the Durant grandparent, is worried about what might happen if administrators don't clamp down. "I think they are going to collide with a real problem.

"They are going to run into somebody that is going to retaliate."


rshaw@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7999

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