By Jon Franklin
The 2022 volleyball season saw the Cedar Ridge Lady Wolves and Orange Lady Panthers engage in some memorable moments. But it also resulted in an unnecessary overreach affecting the game day experience.
At the 3A Eastern Regional Final in Greenville on November 1, the Cedar Ridge reign as defending state champions ended abruptly by the J.H. Rose Rampants. During the first set, play was halted several times as game officials determined that serves were being disrupted from both sides as a result of spectators making noise and allegedly making comments that were considered “demeaning, defamatory, and/or unsportsmanlike”.
Rose athletic director Clay Medlin and Cedar Ridge AD Andy Simmons were summoned to the chair as the officials directed their respective student sections to maintain decorum and not make noise during service. When this conventional method proved futile, play was stopped again. Medlin upped the ante and used the public address system to inform the patrons in “The Rose Garden” that silence must be observed on all serve attempts or face removal from the building. While not fully adhered, it did allow the game to continue without interruption.
This wasn’t the first time that a Cedar Ridge volleyball game was stopped due to “fan verbal interference”.
A similar incident also took place this season at the HighSchoolOT Invitational in Garner. The silly barking and meowing from The Wolfpack prompted Garner’s director of athletics to personally shut down Cedar Ridge’s fans. I’ve also been informed that Orange volleyball games have been affected as well.
From my chair as public address announcer, play-by-play announcer, color analyst, or fan, I’ve observed five different occurrences since 2019 where officials stopped play to a Cedar Ridge volleyball match either due to “fan verbal interference” or even to prevent me from performing public address duties.
From my research and from asking several volleyball coaches about this issue, there are no rules in the volleyball handbook that prevents fans from making noise during volleyball service – as officially issued by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) or the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.
However, the NFHS puts out “Points of Emphasis”. These released bullet points stem from the NFHS volleyball rulebook about what needs to be enforced during games. The 2022 “Point of Emphasis” under ‘Sportsmanship’ (https://rules.nfhs.org/sports-resource-content/volleyball-points-of-emphasis-2022-23) contained this excerpt:
“… Sportsmanship, or good sporting behavior, is about treating one another with respect and exhibiting appropriate behavior. It is about being fair, honest and caring. When these types of appropriate behavior occur, competitive play is more enjoyable for everyone.
Coaches set the tone at athletic contests with their display of sportsmanship. If these individuals act in a sportsmanlike manner, their behavior sets the tone for players, spectators and others. If coaches, however, are complaining constantly about the decision of contest officials, spectators are more likely to do the same.
There must be a collaborative, working relationship between contest officials and game administration to promote good sportsmanship and safely conduct the contest. Everyone has their roles to play in creating a positive, sportsmanlike atmosphere at contests.
Officials should focus on the actions of players, coaches and other bench/sideline personnel. A positive, open line of communication between officials and coaches ultimately results in a better contest for everyone involved.
Contest officials, however, should never engage with spectators who are exhibiting unsporting behavior. Once the contest begins, school administration is responsible for dealing with unruly spectators. A proactive approach by school administration includes monitoring the behavior of spectators and intervening as needed.
If spectators are using demeaning or profane language at officials – or at others in the stands – those individuals should be removed from the contest by school administration…”
No matter where I have been, egregiously bad spectator behavior has always been dealt with by a school’s administration or game management personnel. Whether an official reprimand or a removal took place, schools generally and genuinely know how to nip unwarranted behavior in the bud. Yet, nowhere in my 30 years of announcing and 35 years of being a fan of high school athletics have I seen game officials arbitrarily create rules that simply do not exist. In the instances of “fan verbal interference”, coaches have pressed the officials to go to the rulebook to see where such rules actually exist. Instead, officials pushed back stating it “violated sportsmanship rules” without citing what they actually were.
On several occasions, I was temporarily stopped from announcing citing a misinterpretation of an actual rule that forbids music and announcements from being made during live game action. In Cedar Ridge’s 2021 game versus D.H. Conley in Hillsborough, the floor umpire stopped the game several times in the first set citing the misinterpreted rule. I remained silent until midway through the set when AD Simmons discussed the issue with the chair umpire. Through AD Simmons’ advocacy, the chair umpire agreed that I could announce as long as it was not during play and must cease at the ready for serve whistle. Had these officials actually been to any of the games I had previously announced, they would have seen and heard that I never announce or play music during live game action to begin with.
To be completely honest, what is being seen by game officials and the NCHSAA are good volleyball programs are starting to emulate collegiate environments with music, cheering, chanting, and the use of a public address announcer. While most schools do not have these things for volleyball, having them might seem overwhelming for some officials and feel they are losing control of the match. Perhaps they should take field trips to J.H. Rose, D.H. Conley, North Iredell, Fred T. Foard, Kings Mountain, Enka, West Henderson and other North Carolina volleyball powerhouses to see how their energetic game day experiences in volleyball can be managed.
In both instances, NCHSAA game officials have created or inserted rules to where no rules are given or are vague. Yet, these rules are not enforced with any consistency. What took place between Cedar Ridge and Rose and D.H. Conley, wasn’t enforced between Cedar Ridge and Orange, or of most opponents of the Hillsborough schools. In the vast majority of games played, game officials seemed to interpret that the noise during serve was fine. Either way, no consistency was made to enforce a rule that was vague from the beginning.
Another issue of concern regarding fan participation involved coaching. Back on September 14th, Southern Alamance came to Hillsborough for a game at Cedar Ridge. With the Red Wolves maintaining a modest lead in the first set, the Patriots’ head coach began to complain about the Cedar Ridge students making noise during service.
Play was halted for several minutes as the floor umpire approached me and asked that an announcement be made that noise by spectators could not be made during service. At that point, I refused to make that announcement as I was not Cedar Ridge’s game manager nor was I in position to tell our fans to be quiet when they did not do or say anything that was unsportsmanlike. I called for AD Andy Simmons to come to the scoring table to be notified of the issue. When informed, Simmons along with Cedar Ridge coaches began to ask where in the official rules was fan noise prohibited during serve. As previously mentioned, the floor umpire used the blanket coverage of “sportsmanship” to enforce a rule that did not exist.
After a pause of bickering, Cedar Ridge relented to resume the game, and the Wolfpack acquiesced. But in the protest, Cedar Ridge faced a noticeable delay and eventually lost the advantage and momentum. While Cedar Ridge would eventually win the first set and eventually swept the match, the fact that the Patriots’ coach interjected himself into the match to help his team by a non-athletic reason was evident. After the game, I was notified by an eyewitness that the Southern Alamance coach utilized the same tactic in the match at Orange on August 22nd. At no time should a coach use this tactic to help their team, especially when they are losing. If a coach has to resolve to underhanded tactics to improve their team in a game, then that coach needs to resign in disgrace. A coach must maintain a high degree of integrity to not only lead their team to victory, but to also to make decisions within the framework of the rules. When a coach interprets the rules as to how it benefits them and not to ensure fairness among both teams, then the coach has lost any credibility.
Throughout the NCAA volleyball season, I have watched numerous games to where the fans making noise on serve is prevalent. The current rules and its’ enforcement within the NCHSAA are not going to benefit players with collegiate aspirations. With numerous players from Hillsborough fixing to ascend to the collegiate ranks, they all need to be exposed to the noise so they can learn how to play in hostile environments.
Imagine playing at defending national champion Wisconsin at the Kohl Center among 18,000 rabid Badgers, or at the KFC Yum Center against Final Four contender Louisville packed with 21,500 screaming Cardinals? What about encountering the 12,500 members of The Oakland Zoo at the Petersen Events Center at another Final Four participant in Pitt? No matter the environment, the student athletes playing in all sports need to acclimate themselves to raucous environments. As Jeff Hamlin has told me numerous times about this issue, “Volleyball is not Tennis. Get past the crowd and put the ball over the net.”
So what if you don’t play volleyball? What if you are a basketball player shooting free throws in a contested game with time winding down? Will the referees stop the crowds from making noise in order to throw you off? What if you are a pitcher in baseball or softball in a tied game in the late innings? Will the umpires silence spectators as you’re about to pitch? Unfortunately for student-athletes, what we saw in volleyball may not be relegated to volleyball in the future. It’s possible that hot student sections and fan bases could be extinguished in other sports – all in the name of “sportsmanship”.
This issue brings up a life lesson. If approached with an aggressive situation, how do you handle it? Do you succumb to the pressure, or do you rise above it through critical thinking and assertive action? If anything from the NFHS and NCHSAA, they want the pressure removed so you don’t face it. But as we all know, this never happens in life. At no time in life will pressure be removed so you can face more easier challenges. So why can’t our children, our students, and our players learn to overcome obstacles that face them head on?
As the landscape of high school athletics continues to change, one thing needs to be realized: Life goes on and doesn’t change under the guise of “Sportsmanship”. Challenges in life will either make you bitter or make you better. As we all are at the mountain, many will remain at base camp while some will make the climb. For a select number, they will ascend to the summit and declare victory. Don’t be afraid to start your journey towards victory despite a challenge before you. While you’re there, cheer on others in their climb towards victory.
My take on the issue? As long as the fans are respectful and not saying anything derogatory or defamatory –
Let the fans cheer. If they act in an unbecoming way, remove them from the gym. If the offenses are repetitive, the offender(s) must face suspension from attending games. But if they’re just cheering, making noise, and having a good time – let them be fans. Fans often go to games to release stress, hang out with friends, and to have a good time. If the rules continue to suppress fan involvement, then sooner or later there will be no fans at high school sporting events.