The basketball game between Landry-Walker and McDonogh 35 high schools was not an obvious flash point for a brawl.
The contest drew a crowd to the Landry-Walker gym Tuesday night and promised a showdown between two high-profile players. But large crowds are not unusual for Landry-Walker, whose boys basketball team has twice won state titles. The two schools don’t have a history of bitter rivalry, and the game itself was not marred by poor sportsmanship.
Even so, chaos erupted on the court after the final buzzer with a fight that was largely fueled by spectators.
While there were no serious injuries or arrests, the altercation shows how quickly school sporting events can turn from healthy competition to violent confrontation.
The problem is a long-standing one, according to Kenneth Trump, a Cleveland-based expert on school safety and security, and it’s not limited to any one city or community. Among the factors at play: large crowds, heightened emotions and crowd psychology that prompts people who might not act out violently one-on-one to behave aggressively in a group.
“It’s disheartening that it’s happening, and it’s disheartening that it’s happening everywhere,” said Eddie Bonine, executive director of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association.
Tuesday’s fist fight, which was recorded on a cellphone and widely disseminated, is focusing attention on the issue of game security. The question Bonine said he is asking is, “What are we going to do about this behavior?”
Game security is one of the biggest expenses administrators have, he said, and if the LHSAA required a specific level of staffing it would amount to an unfunded mandate — requiring actions but not paying for them. Schools have to make decisions on security levels for themselves, he said.
“The bottom line is that it’s the schools’ responsibility to host events and to host them safely,” Bonine said.
The scuffle in the Landry-Walker gym followed two recent incidents at football games, including a fight at the Amite-Bogalusa game that resulted in a suspended Amite team losing its shot at the state championship.
For Landry-Walker and McDonogh 35, the consequences laid out Friday were less onerous. The LHSAA is lifting the suspensions of both teams as of Monday, though another game between the two schools that was to have taken place in January has been canceled. The two schools will each have to pay a $500 fine, and both must submit letters explaining how they will keep spectators off the floor at future games.
But Bonine made it clear Friday that he’s willing to go further if necessary to ensure safety for young athletes and those who come to watch them play.
He said there were parallels between the scuffle at Tuesday’s basketball game and the Amite-Bogalusa fight, including the fact that spectators invaded the playing space.
“The only guaranteed safety is if you play without anyone in the building, and that’s tragedy,” Bonine said. It also threatens the very income that supports high school athletics.
But it’s a step he has taken in previous jobs, he said, pointing to a playoff game in Nevada that was suspended with three minutes left in the third quarter and finished the following day at 3 p.m. with only school administrators and cheerleaders in attendance.
“It’s not pretty,” he said of the fight at Landry-Walker. “I’m glad a weapon didn’t come out. It could have been a major tragedy. It was a major incident.”
As a former school administrator and athletic director, Bonine said, he understands the difficulty inherent in managing crowds of fans. “It’s me, the vice principal, maybe 10 or 12 of you in a gym of 2,000 people. You’re outnumbered,” he said.
Surveillance video from the gym showed that those involved in the fight were mostly of high school age, Bonine said. But bad behavior isn’t solely a problem among the young.
Sheena Smith, athletic director for John Ehret High School, said that when she played 15 years ago, it was rare to see a player, coach or fan thrown out of a game. “Fans have changed,” she said. “The fans and parents are almost encouraging this disrespectful behavior.”
Everyone questions what the coaches do, from calling plays to setting lineups, she said. “Everybody has more information now, so they think they know everything. And there are no real consequences.”
Role of social media
Bonine also believes that social media are playing a role in bad behavior at athletic events. Social media take trash-talking to another level, he said, and it’s impossible for school administrators to monitor or know what’s flying through cyberspace as a game is unfolding.
Tarance David, the athletic director for Landry-Walker, also sees the change in behavior wrought by social media.
“Years ago, you wouldn’t know a team until they showed up to play,” he said. “Now, because of Twitter and social media, fans are able to have words with each other before they ever see each other. People who think they are being supportive of their teams are now starting to have contact with each other.”
Adrian Morgan, CEO of the Algiers Charter School Association, said officials at Landry-Walker did all the things that are recommended to keep athletic events safe. He described Tuesday’s events as an anomaly for the largest-enrollment public school in the city.
“We take game security very seriously,” he said. The school will refuse entry, search bags or eject fans if deemed necessary. All of the school’s big events and games at large venues have an appropriate level of security, he said.
At Tuesday’s game, eight New Orleans police officers, three Orleans Parish School Board resource officers and Algiers Charter Schools resource officers provided security.
“We had more than enough for it to be a safe and secure environment,” Davis said. “You really can’t anticipate something like that happening. But you make sure you have enough police in place.”
The Orleans Parish School Board issued a statement Friday saying that outbreaks of violence at athletic events “force us to re-evaluate our current procedures to ensure all safety protocols are met.” In the coming weeks, the board said, it will communicate directly with schools to ensure a safe environment during athletic events.
Morgan said the fight at Landry-Walker was broken up in less than two minutes and the gym was cleared within five — in large part because the school was prepared.
That is the key, according to Trump, the Cleveland security expert. He urged careful advance planning, such as principals discussing past incidents or tensions between schools and making sure there’s adequate security staffing and that the security people are watching the crowd and not just the game.
Setting expectations for fan behavior as well as student behavior — and enforcing them — is also crucial, he said.
In St. Tammany Parish, a statement concerning sportsmanship and expectations for fans and players is read over the public address system at every football game and large sports event, schools spokeswoman Meredith Mendez said.
Bonine agreed that it’s important to communicate expectations. He made a three-minute video on sportsmanship after the Amite-Bogalusa incident that was distributed to every school.
But the fact there have been three recent incidents should raise concerns, according to Trump. “If there’s one (fight), you issue a prompt response and deliver the message. If there’s two, maybe they’re not getting the message. With three, maybe we are not getting the message,” he said.
Bonine said he is determined to send the message that fighting won’t be tolerated.
“We don’t want the Legislature mandating metal detectors and saying what we have to do. So we need to show that we can take care of our own business,” he said.
“I hope the people don’t keep trying us. If they do, (teams) are going to be playing in an empty gym. That’s what’s coming. That’s a drastic measure for a drastic time, but if that’s what it takes, that’s what we’ll do.”
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.