After a physical fight between athletes from the Gaithersburg and Northwestern football teams on September 16, several students and a 19-year-old were charged with assault. Since then, sports games have changed in high schools across the county. The exits will be guarded with more security, students from other schools must be accompanied by an accompanying adult and all spectators must remain seated in the stands during the game. The punitive and misguided changes MCPS has made to keep sports games safe are disproportionate to the scale of the struggle and limit students’ ability to enjoy high school sports.
Brawls at football games and high school in general are not uncommon. What is unusual, however, is that adults participate. Gaithersburg athletic director William Gant filed a second-degree assault charge against Northwest High School coach Travis Hawkins, claiming he failed to de-escalate the brawl. Though the charges have since been dropped, tensions between adults on the field may have resulted in more players getting involved, further escalating the fight. Samual Nosoff, the head coach of the Blair collegiate football team, describes his reaction when he heard the news of the unusual fight. “When I heard the coaches were involved [in the fighting]and athletic directors were involved, it’s a first for me,” Nosoff said.
Blair’s former college football coach, Daniel Cole, also commented on the incident. “It started with kids fighting on the field as members of teams, which happens, but … you have to be able to trust the adults in positions of authority that they’re prepared and trained to be [fights on the field]’ says Kohl.
In most cases this is true; Adults on the field are able to coordinate and prevent fights before they happen. At Blair, Nosoff and the many assistant coaches monitor players’ mental states and remove them from the situation if they seem unstable. “When tensions rise, we have a lot of coaches here constantly monitoring … the physical and the mental side of the game. So if we have to pull someone out of a game early, we’re only doing it to prevent things from escalating,” Nosoff said.
Given that no event like the Gaithersburg fight has ever made the news, most schools in the county are at least able to prevent the fighting from escalating. It is therefore not reasonable to penalize schools for something they have never been involved in.
The changes become even more confusing when you consider that some of them reduce game participation. For example, all non-school students participating in a sports game must be accompanied by an adult throughout the game.
Sports director Rita Boule says escorts are a necessary step to prevent people from other schools causing trouble. “Unfortunately, visiting students from both schools have encountered problems at these schools’ games in numerous venues. As athletic directors, we know that sometimes the other kids from other schools are the problem and there’s no adult there to calm down… that behavior,” says Boule.
Students see it differently. Senior Jack Bevington is a member of Blair’s Blazer Ragers Spirit Club and doesn’t see children from other schools as a problem. “The people who are fighting are the children who go to school [competing] because they really care about the outcome of the game. If a kid from B-CC comes to a Blair vs. Einstein game, they won’t start an argument and they won’t care about the outcome,” Bevington says.
In addition, students from all schools cannot attend games after halftime. Much like the chaperone rule, it is well intentioned; It tries to prevent people who actually don’t care about the game from causing conflict. However, what this rule ignores is that the second half of a game is the most exciting, as it usually determines which team wins. As a result, people who can’t see the whole game come to the second half to see the result. Now, those same people must choose between seeing their school compete or changing their schedule.
High school sports games are meant to be community events, bringing students together. Restricting who can attend and when mitigates that purpose by preventing the connection between students from different schools.
The gap between student and adult perspectives on school safety extends to police presence. Armed police and more security personnel have become more prominent at Blair football games since the changes. Boule believes this sends a message of stability and security. “If you bring in more security, if you bring in more cops, if you bring in more adults, it’s not to take away from the fun, it’s to say to the community, ‘We’re here as a community running a safe event,'” says boule.
Although more police reduce the likelihood of a fight escalating, it also detracts from the atmosphere of what is supposed to be a fun and celebratory event, especially with students in and out. As part of the changes, MCPS announced that “high traffic areas” will be subject to additional security measures and tiered exits. Entering and exiting games is expected to take longer due to “enhanced security measures”. Given the size of Blair’s student body and the relatively narrow entrances to the stands and ticket office, security needs to be tight.
While imposing stricter rules county-wide can be preemptive, it is also a criminal offense to penalize the entire county for an incident between just two high schools, especially since it’s so rare for coaches to argue at a game.
For example, in Blair, most of the safety measures the county had put in place already existed, such as the no-backpack policy and a student ID requirement. Blair also has separate stands for the home and away fans, which helps prevent fights in the stands. This was not the case in Gaithersburg, where the proximity of opposing teams was the likely cause of a post-game scuffle in the school parking lot.
In an attempt to address the controversy and outrage of a very local issue, MCPS have created nationwide problems and demonstrated their separation from their high school student bodies. Student safety may be their number one priority, but because they were reactionary rather than proactive, they had to be much more rigorous and the result will be less energy from fewer people in the stands.