Most individuals involved with high school athletics realize that the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) is responsible for producing rules books for all sanctioned (recognized) sports. There are committees that meet annually to review and revise the rules for each individual sport.

There is a routine, standard introduction on the inside cover or first page of all rules books, and one statement which is included is that a participant should play within the spirit of the game. What exactly does this mean? It involves doing what is right and intended, even if something isn’t exactly included in a specific rule. Ethics, integrity, honor, respect and other attributes come into focus.

Playing within the spirit of the game should obviously pertain to the athletes or coaches on the court or field, and not trying to gain an unfair advantage. Have you ever seen those involved in the game raising their arms to encourage the fans to chant or yell? While encouragement in reaction to an outstanding play is appropriate, quite often this action or step, however, is meant to deter an opponent or to highlight a misstep or mistake by the opposition.

In basketball, for example, fans may yell “miss it” as a player from the visiting team steps to the foul line and looks at the rim. This action isn’t covered by a rule, but it does represent poor sportsmanship. It also definitely is not within the spirit of the game. Encouraging an opponent to do poorly is completely opposite to this premise. By all means, fans should encourage their team to do well, but never root for the opponent to fail or to make a mistake.

In like fashion, when the crowd sings “Na, Na, Na – It’s All Over” at the end of the contest, the fans are putting down the efforts of the opposing school and humiliating them. Is this right? No, it isn’t! One athletic director was overheard at a conference responding to this example, “The kids were just having fun and we have to allow them to have some fun.” Another athletic administrator in the same group added, “you can’t constantly tell kids ‘No.” If it is wrong, since you are the adult in the room as the athletic administrator, you have to tell your fans “No” if something is inappropriate.

What can be done to promote and ensure more is done to play or operate within the spirit of the game?

  • Put together an educational initiative for athletes and coaches, and clearly detail what is meant by playing within the spirit of the game. This effort can and should use specific examples that may have occurred at your school or neighboring schools. You can use a PowerPoint presentation, handouts, imprinted t-shirts and anything else to get this vital message across.
  • Explain to your coaches that their behavior and mannerisms at contests do influence athletes and fans. Therefore, they play a huge role in how both groups conduct themselves at games. Politely, yet firmly, point out that coaches are responsible for their decorum before, during and after games, and that they will be held accountable.
  • Produce a brief, concise statement of expectations for your fans. Clearly explain what is acceptable and unacceptable at games, and include specific, concrete examples so that there is no misunderstanding. Spell out what it means to operate within the spirit of the game!
  • Distribute these guidelines to all parents and fans at pre-season parent, booster club and parent-teacher association meetings, and, of course, have a stack of these handouts at your ticket booths. In addition, post this notice on your website and include it on printed schedules.
  • Use public-address announcements at games to inform and remind fans that the spirit of the game has to be honored. Also, use social media to issue reminders to fans prior to big, traditional rival games to ensure the greatest compliance.
  • Brief your security personnel – off-duty police officers, assigned teachers and administrators – of what to look for with respect to fan behavior. Actually, give them a flyer containing your expectations, provide some specific examples of what might occur and answer any questions that they might have. Being proactive and prepared is a great way to ensure a better environment. While your security and supervisory individuals watch the spectators, you keep an eye on your athletes and coaches.
  • Share and utilize the Golden Rule as a prime example of why fans should not use inappropriate cheers, chants or songs. The guiding question that anyone should always use is, how would you feel if you were the recipient of these planned or spontaneous expressive efforts? Chances are great that you wouldn’t like it. Therefore, don’t do it.
  • Create a student leadership group and have those individuals help guide or lead the deportment of the student section. This can and should include the actual step of individuals in this group to positively and politely intervene, and speak to fellow students in an effort to help police their actions and behavior at contests.
  • • Encourage and enlist the help of booster club members to help guide and influence fans at contests. This can be accomplished by putting together brief, informative presentations for use at pre-season parent and booster club meetings in order to discover volunteers.
  • • Always accentuate the positive behavior at games. Publicly recognize and congratulate students for exhibiting and promoting an environment at a contest which does represent operating within the spirit of the game. Positive reinforcement is always a great tool and it may encourage more displays of good sportsmanship in the future.

The athletic administrator has to be the adult in the room, and the one who must set, remind and enforce the standards for good sportsmanship and the promotion of the concept of playing within the spirit of the game.