It didn’t take long before I started receiving responses to a sports column last week in which I expressed my disappointment of Carthage High School’s student section at home basketball games.
I got a phone call the next day from a lifelong fan who wanted to come talk to me face to face. I didn’t know what to expect, but when the person arrived and we began talking, he agreed with what I had written.
“I’ve been in funeral homes louder than a Carthage basketball game,” he said.
I got another phone call that night from another fan, also disappointed in the atmosphere at Tigers basketball games.
“It just seems like when it comes to athletics, the Carthage administration always strives for mediocrity,” the caller said.
I didn’t know how that column would be received, but I felt the point needed to be made.
“Why is there so much apathy in Carthage toward a basketball team that is having a great season with great players? Why do students show so little interest in coming to the games and doing anything more than sitting and texting?” I wrote Jan. 19.
But that column got people talking, and everyone I heard from agreed. Carthage has a gorgeous gymnasium and two varsity basketball teams with winning records. The boys, in fact, are now 17-3. You would think people would be lining up to get a good seat in the student section.
The one thing everyone who contacted me has in common is a belief that the lack of enthusiasm from Carthage students can be traced directly to restrictions on their behavior enforced by high school administrators, so I decided to look into the issue.
I contacted a current Carthage High School student, a person I’ve seen at the games and who I consider to be an honest person, and I asked why the students appear so apathetic.
“It started off with the restraints upon how we are allowed to cheer for our team,” this student said. “We feel kind of, I don’t want to say held back, but the way we feel is that we’re kind of overcontrolled in what we can and can’t say.”
This student said there was a noticeable decline in student enthusiasm about the time the Tigers started playing in the new high school.
“We thought the gym was awesome,” the student said. “If you look up to the upper mezzanine area, it says Carthage High School student section, and there have been times in the past they’ve blocked off that area for students not to be able to sit in it. It’s disappointing when they put up a sign for everybody to sit together and cheer for their team and then they block it off. That hasn’t happened this year, but it happened last year.”
So exactly what kind of behavior is allowed, and what isn’t? Students used to paint their faces, and have themed nights where the whole section would wear the same color. That type of behavior hasn’t been restricted, the student said, but hazing has.
“I’m a firm believer that hazing the other team’s players is part of the student section and getting inside the other team’s heads,” the student said. “There’s zero tolerance for that at Carthage High School.
“Yelling discouraging things to the other team, like ‘Hey, No. 46, you’re our best player,’ if he turns the ball over. If we were to do something like that we would get a snap of the finger or a quick whistle to straighten us up.”
To be fair, using the term hazing in the wake of the scandal at Florida A&M might not be the best way to describe it, but I know what the student is getting at, and it’s all in good nature.
What kind of behavior would this student deem unacceptable?
“Anything you wouldn’t want your mom to hear wouldn’t be appropriate,” the student said. “I don’t think anybody in the Carthage student section would yell something they wouldn’t want their mother to hear. I really don’t think there’s anything that bad. I can honestly tell you there has probably never been anything I’ve said or anybody in the student section has said that I would have a problem with my mom hearing, but I guess the Carthage staff disagrees with that.”
My next stop was Carthage athletics director Andy Youngworth, who also coaches the cross country and track and field teams. Part of the problem, according to Youngworth, is a lack of natural rivalries for the Tigers in the area after joining the Central Ozarks Conference. There are Webb City and Joplin, but besides that, few teams in the area get Carthage fans very riled up.
Youngworth said he’s not sure overall numbers are down, and though participation in the sense of crowd noise may be down a little bit, he attributes that partly to the size of the new gymnasium.
“I’m not trying to make excuses, but we’re in a different facility,” he said. “Put 400 people in this gym and it’s about 20 percent full. We seat 2,200 here. The noise level of our crowd will just be different. The old gym seated maybe 800.”
Youngworth said Carthage always has good crowds and participation at football and wrestling events, and he added that overall participation as an athletics department has risen. The booster club in football has been sold out for the last four or five years.
But while those are both legitimate points, there is still no denying the fact that the student section has drawn comparisons to a funeral home. The students who come to the games are simply not very active, not very vocal.
Youngworth said he’s aware that some feel the reason is school staff are too restrictive.
“I’ve been aware of that criticism in the past, that we suck all the fun out of it, or we don’t let kids have fun,” he said. “Our practices are pretty clear. They can do whatever they want as long as they don’t taunt opposing teams by name or number, or their coach or their fans or the referees. That pretty much is it. Now, there are certain chants that are pretty clearly derogatory in nature. If those chants start, we’re going to stop them. That’s not something I feel promotes sportsmanship or does anything except put the attention on the kids’ section as opposed to what’s going on on the court.”
Youngworth points out that Carthage received an award from the Missouri State High School Activities Association for sportsmanship.
“I think it’s a great recognition for the school,” he said.
As far as the labeled student section in the mezzanine on the west end of the gymnasium, where I’ve seen students sitting once or twice this season, Youngworth said in the past there have been problems.
“A couple years ago when we first opened it up, as a result of some behavior of some kids who are no longer here obviously, we didn’t let them sit up there because of some inappropriate behavior and that it continued,” he said. “They’re not going to get booted out of there for one incident, but if it’s recurring then that’s an issue.”
So what can we take away from all of this, and where do I stand? It’s difficult to come down firmly on one side or the other. You can’t really argue with much of what Youngworth says, and it’s also easy to see that students feel discouraged.
I played high school sports, and it wouldn’t bother me having an opposing student section give me a hard time for messing up on a play, because I know it wouldn’t be a personal attack. Frankly, I would do the same if I were in the student section because it’s part of the atmosphere of athletics. But I also know some players might not respond well, and the criticism could linger even off the court or field.
Could students be more active, and still within school rules? Most definitely. Have administrators been too harsh in the past? Very possibly.
There is one thing I think everyone can agree on, though. It needs to change for the better.
It is telling, I think, that the most active I have seen the Carthage students at a basketball game this season was a road contest at Joplin, and the most active student section I’ve seen at Carthage High School this winter belonged to an opposing team.
Maybe students and administrators like Youngworth need to have some dialogue and find a way they can both agree on to improve the situation. Maybe they already have.
I just hope Tuesday night when the Tigers host Mt. Vernon, there’s a difference for the better, because what it really comes down to is helping the teams on the court have success.