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Our Opinion: Players, fans must remember that it’s still only a game

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Hotheaded student-athletes and spiteful spectators gave the high school sports scene a black eye this week.

Wilson County Schools leaders sidelined Hunt and Fike high schools from postseason play Monday in the aftermath of a brawl between the Warriors and Golden Demons after last Thursday’s varsity football game that required school resource officers’ intervention.

In Durham, school officials are investigating complaints that Charles E. Jordan High fans taunted the opposing goalie over his father’s cancer death from the stands during a Thursday soccer game and jeered another player over a family suicide. If the reports are true, these ghouls have set a new low for boorish fan behavior.


The custom of opposing teams lining up to shake hands after a game is meant to reinforce good sportsmanship. Hunt and Fike players turned that tradition on its ear when a fight broke out in the receiving line. The Golden Demons had just prevailed 28-0 in the clash of cross-county rivals at Warrior Stadium.

SROs and other Wilson County deputies tried to separate the players and finally deployed pepper spray to break the scrum. Both coaches expressed disappointment in their student-athletes’ unsportsmanlike conduct.

“I have never seen anything like it in my 25 years (of coaching),” Fike head coach Tom Nelson told Times senior sports reporter Tom Ham, who witnessed the melee. “It’s embarrassing.”

In a written statement that was also published as a letter to the editor, Superintendent Lane Mills and coaches and athletic directors from both schools announced that Fike and Hunt had taken their last snaps for the year. Both teams were playoff-eligible; Hunt forfeited a scheduled matchup with Havelock and Fike, which was seeking an opponent to lengthen its hurricane-shortened schedule, called off its search.

The penalties are self-imposed and preempt a North Carolina High School Athletic Association investigation, which could have resulted in similar or lesser sanctions.

“Participation in athletics is a privilege and not a right,” Mills and his co-signers wrote. “Rivalries and traditions are important, but lack of sportsmanship from our athletes will not be tolerated.”

Wilson County Schools sent the right message and stood up for the values of sportsmanship and fair play. Allowing the Demons and Warriors to continue competition would have undercut the discipline coaches instill on the field and teachers instill in the classroom.

Actions have consequences. That may be a hard lesson for still-maturing student-athletes caught up in a wave of emotion, but better they learn it now than as adults, when a fistfight often ends with a trip to jail.


Hollering yourself hoarse to spur your team to victory is all well and good, and the sporting tradition even allows for some good-natured teasing of a visiting opponent (“Swing, batter, batter...”) But when the athletes are high-schoolers and the grandstand chants chillingly reference deceased parents, spectators are no longer showing school spirit. They’re bullying vulnerable children.

Nancy Winkler, the mother of Page High’s goalie, wrote in a letter to Jordan High’s principal and athletic director that their fans used shouts of “Where is your dad?” to mock the teen, whose father had succumbed to colon cancer three years prior.

Another Greensboro Page player, whose father, Winkler writes, “committed suicide amidst allegations of embezzlement,” was heckled with chants of “Where’s the money?”

The letter doesn’t specify fans’ age, but it’s clear that parents either took part in the taunts or did nothing to discourage them. The sophistication of the intensely personal attacks suggests adult involvement, though we’d hardly call such appalling behavior mature.

Winkler said Jordan spectators appeared to have performed extensive research on individual student-athletes, mining private family tragedies to gather ammunition they could deploy to distract Page players. The allegations turn our stomachs.

While this ranks as an extreme example of fan misbehavior, below-the-belt jeers aren’t all that rare. Local fans have taunted injured players or applauded their injuries. The pathetic grownups who take part in these outbursts ought to have their heads examined.

From student-athletes to their friends and families in the stands, we all need to remember that youth sports are played for the love of the game. You can be a tough competitor without coming to blows, and you can claim the mantle of school spirit superfan without sacrificing sportsmanship and class.