The clock is ticking down. The Gamecocks are making history at Williams-Brice Stadium, the Colonial Life Arena, or perhaps another home venue. The game will be the lead story on ESPN’s SportsCenter. You’re in the stands. Please stay there.
Fans rushing the field or the court after a spectacular or historic victory is nothing new. Such celebrations will now cost the University more than ever before, and could reach sums of up to a quarter of a million dollars. New legislation at the Southeastern Conference’s annual spring meetings significantly raised the fine to discourage such actions.
“It’s a situation where safety is paramount,” South Carolina Athletics Director Ray Tanner said. “As exciting as big wins and upsets are, along with the pandemonium of rushing the court or the field, it’s a safety concern. In too many cases, the emphasis is not great enough, and that financial penalty emphasizes that. We need to take precautions necessary to prevent this situation from happening. It’s not because we don’t want our fans to be excited. It’s strictly a safety issue. We want to protect our fans, student-athletes and other personnel.”
The first-time an SEC school’s fan base violates the rule, the institution will now face a $50,000 fine, which is 10 times more than the previous penalty for first-time offenders. The second offense carries a $100,000 fine, and any subsequent offense will result in a $250,000 fine.
“We’ve already had two offense so far,” said Jeff Davis, Associate Athletics Director for Operations and Facilities. “So if it happens again, we would be subject to that third offense which is $250,000. The clock doesn’t ‘reset’ with this new set of fines. We don’t budget that sort of money just to lose it for excessive celebrations. So that would come out of operating funds, and would be a huge blow.”
The SEC commissioner may also tack on additional penalties if needed. For the last decade, the SEC had fined its schools $5,000, $25,000 and up to $50,000 for first, second and third offenses respectively. Nine of the SEC's 14 schools have incurred fines since the original policy went into effect on Dec. 1, 2004. That includes South Carolina. During the 2014 football season alone, five SEC schools were fined after fans rushed their fields following victories.
“We’re serious about the policy, and I understand the purpose of it for the safety of the coaches, student-athletes and the fans themselves,” Davis said. “We talk a lot about educating our fans. We do public address announcements during games, we do video messaging, it’s in our fan guide and on our fan guide web site, and it’s posted at the gate of entry. We try to get the message out there as many times as we can in as many avenues as possible to educate fans.”
I believe in our fans. I believe they will catch on to this because it’s not something we take lightly. I think we’re in a better position now where big wins aren’t upsets anymore.Ray Tanner, Athletics Director
The warning of losing ticket privileges is also listed on individual tickets for South Carolina home games.
“We have had discussions about taking away privileges and taking away tickets, and all kinds of things,” Tanner said. “Our intent is not to do anything that is received negatively, it’s just all about safety. As exciting as it can be, it is dangerous. There have been numerous instances around the country where people have been hurt when rushing the court or the field. We just don’t think that it’s a situation that should be promoted. It needs to be prevented.”
The risk of injury is indeed very real. A couple of years ago, a disabled student at North Carolina State was nearly trampled on the court after his wheelchair was toppled over by fans rushing around him. In 2014, a fight erupted between New Mexico State student-athletes and Utah Valley fans who stormed the court after an exciting overtime win. In any such scenario, there is risk associated with thousands of passionate fans rushing into a confined space. It may be fun at first, but it can quickly become dangerous as fans try to keep from falling down. There is also a risk to those staffing the athletic event as they may be outnumbered by on-rushing fans.
“We’ll continue to staff as we have been,” Davis said. “Our first priority is to keep fans off the field or the court to make sure the teams can get off safely. In some situations, you have to worry about putting your police officers and event staff in harm’s way. You have to factor in their safety as well. It can be a double-edged sword from a game management standpoint. It’s a fine balance between the right thing to do and the safe thing to do. We want to do both.”
There is also a risk of liability to the host school so these precautions are necessary before something tragic occurs. Student-athletes and coaches should be allowed to enjoy the win without the fear of being injured by well-meaning fans, and there are better ways for fans to express their joy in a big win.
“We have achieved a lot of great things, especially in the last 8 to 10 years,” Davis said. “So you can relish in the moment, but act like we’ve been there before. We’ve had a lot of firsts already. We can celebrate without it being perceived as something negative. You also have to be accountable to those around you, and the people who are putting on the event.”
“I believe in our fans,” Tanner added. “I believe they will catch on to this because it’s not something we take lightly. I think we’re in a better position now where big wins aren’t upsets anymore. One of the biggest compliments you can have as a student-athlete or as a coach is when people stay in their seats and stand to applaud at the end of game. I think that’s a great way to show appreciation and excitement.”