Benefield: Root for the home team — with class

Analy's Grant St. Martin (31) makes an inbound pass amid some distraction from Cardinal Newman fans in a 2013 game. Credit: Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat

Analy’s Grant St. Martin (31) makes an inbound pass amid some distraction from Cardinal Newman fans in a 2013 game.
Credit: Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat


We’ve all seen it. We’ve all heard it.

Heck, some of us might have even laughed at a particularly sharp barb or yelled a few of these ourselves.

Chants of “Scoreboard! Scoreboard!” when the score grows a bit lopsided. Or “Start the bus!” in the waning moments of a blowout.

They are the rooter section cheers that lift the home team and, increasingly it seems, take aim at the opposing team or school.

In local gyms, you might hear chants of “We get a free education!” directed at the Cardinal Newman crowd, promptly returned with “Your dad works for my dad!”

Good fun or low class? Part of the high school experience or something that has no place on campus?

A newly launched campaign pushes hard for the latter.

“Battle of the Fans,” modeled after a statewide program in Michigan, will include every school in both the North Bay and Sonoma County leagues and will reward the school with the most spirited student section during the course of the boys’ and girls’ basketball seasons. And by spirited, organizers mean civilized — fun and raucous, but civilized.

One school from each league will be rewarded with a cash and kudos prize at the end of the season based on a live visit as well as a student-produced video showcasing their cheer section.

It’s being overseen by school officials and run by a coordinator, but what is abundantly clear is that its success relies entirely on student buy-in.

The idea is this: Get students to focus not on belittling (or even berating) the opposing team and their fans, but on pumping up their own.

“What was happening at all schools was, it was making the sport of cheering against the other fan section,” said Montgomery principal Laurie Fong, who has spearheaded the program locally. “It was … who could smack down the other fan base.”

“It was a constant battle,” she said of monitoring rooting sections and quashing offensive chants before they were bellowed. “It was continuing and it wasn’t getting any better. … It’s good natured, but sometimes kids got a little testy.”

In addition to over-the-line jeering that has crossed the line, there have been some high-profile incidents in recent years of local fans run amok. Racial taunts. The man who threw a bag of ice at a player on the court. But those are no-brainers. That doesn’t belong in the bleachers or anywhere else. The “Battle of the Fans” is aimed more at the gray area — the fine line between school spirit and offensive behavior.

And backers are starting with basketball because it presents especially close proximity between fans and players, and fans and other fans.

“We do feel it’s the toughest one to handle because of the proximity, the intensity,” said Steve Arrow, the Montgomery boys’ junior varsity coach and the man picked to coordinate the program in its inaugural year. “You are throwing the ball in and there’s a guy six inches from you in the student section.”

But just what kind of behavior crosses the line? That can sometimes be a difficult thing to judge, some administrators said.

“I never take it too serious, but people come up to us and say ‘You were too loud’ or ‘You shouldn’t have said that,’ ” said Cardinal Newman’s athletic director Jerry Bonfigli. “It’s kind of what we are moving toward, so we just want to be loud and positive.”

Getting student investment is critical. There is a class clown element among the “bleacher creatures.” The kid with the snarkiest remark gets the biggest laugh. And getting that laugh feels pretty good. So key to success of “Battle of the Fans” is tackling that attitude and asking students to be creative, clever and funny in support of their school rather than taking a dig at their opponent.

Alex Netherda, a senior at Maria Carrillo High School who has attended his fair share of athletic events both in the stands and on the field of play, said a shift in mindset is possible. Netherda took part in a meeting held with student representatives from all participating schools to go over objectives and face the obvious hurdle: Will students embrace it or dismiss it?

“Obviously, if you can come up with an especially great insult for the other school, you will feel like top dog, but it won’t be long before one comes right back at you,” Netherda said. “I think it will catch on. People like chanting good things toward our team and watching our team do well.”

Fong believes it.

“Here is the thing about teenagers: They are awesomely amazing,” she said. “They rise to the challenge.”

At Analy, principal Chris Heller is making physical changes along with participating in “Battle of the Fans.”

The Tigers’ Blue Crew rooter section last year was in the bleachers directly across from the opponents’ bench. This year? It’s across from the home team.

“It was strategic in doing that — facing our players and encouraging them,” he said.

“We have seen some events at basketball games that have caused us to rethink,” he said.

Heller has perspective most don’t. He played basketball at Chico State. But Heller and others say the college and pro games are not the same as high school athletics, and the fans shouldn’t act the same, either.

“I don’t think it’s part of high school sports,” he said. “The idea that students can say what they want and use profanity or sometimes even derogatory terms and heckle them, I don’t think schools want to be known for that. I think we should take steps like this to discourage it when we can.”

I heard some choice jeers at soccer and football games this season. But basketball is where the program will launch.

Also of note. I spent a good deal of time watching videos from Michigan’s program this week. Not once did I see footage of students cheering (or even attending) a women’s game. Nobody asked me to be a part of the impartial panel of community people who will eventually decide the “Battle of the Fans” winners, but surely those wise folks will be mindful of fostering spirit for all teams.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or and on Twitter @benefield