IN 11 YEARS AS AN ASSISTANT COACH AT BYU and more than five as a head coach, Roger Reid has seen his share of abuse from fans. Wherever the Cougars go, there's always someone ready and willing to comment on Reid's heritage, haircut, necktie or general overall personality. Which stands to reason. The Cougars have won three regular-season WAC championships in the last five years.
It's hard for people to like you when you're beating up on their team.But last month, the problem of taunting took on exaggerated proportions when a fan at Colorado State came from a seat several rows behind the BYU bench to yell obscenities and religious taunts at Reid.
Though the fan was removed from the game, the story wasn't over yet. The following day, WAC commissioner Karl Benson issued a statement, saying coaches shouldn't have to deal with racial, religious or sexual insults and admonished the various schools to take appropriate steps.
"Fans have a right to yell and scream, but they don't have a right to direct profanity and abusive language at an individual," Benson said.
Reid, of course, isn't the only WAC coach who has to deal with such boorish behavior. Wyoming's Joby Wright, an African-American, was reportedly taunted with racial remarks at a game in El Paso a week earlier, and a fan was escorted from the arena. Air Force's Reggie Minton, also African-American, said racial tension has existed in the WAC as long as he can remember. Minton, a gentle and soft-spoken man, told one reporter, "I try very hard to tune out things being yelled, but when it's personal and it's racial, that's very difficult."
However appalling, it is curious why the issue of abuse by fans came to the forefront this year. The WAC has long had a fair number of taunters and catcallers.
The biggest perpetrators - at least as far as BYU is concerned - are the Wyoming fans. In the old Wyoming basketball arena, the court was mounted on a dirt rodeo floor, lending an air of recklessness to the proceedings. Fans chanted anti-BYU obscenities en masse whenever the Cougars came to town.
Of course, nobody had more talent at attracting abuse than former BYU coach Frank Arnold. Arnold would call time out and glare into the crowd, attempting to point out to security officials which fan was throwing things at him. The moment he'd turn back, the abuse rose to the next level. Fans would hold pennies with tweezers, heating them up until they were red hot and then flip them at the BYU bench. Players were also pelted with rotten fruit, game programs and other materials.
Arnold became so disgusted with the behavior of Wyoming's fans, he termed the crowd "despicable." For years after Arnold left BYU, the Wyoming crowd would gleefully chant "We're despicable!" whenever BYU came to town.
When Ladell Andersen took over at BYU, he diffused the situation considerably by ignoring the crowds. It worked relatively well when fans learned they couldn't get Andersen to turn around. As the years passed, the malicious catcalls were kept to a minimum.
Wyoming certainly isn't the only guilty party when it comes to unruly fans. One year when Wyoming was beating BYU at the Marriott Center, the abuse came in the form of a small metal ingot that was tossed from the crowd at the Wyoming bench. The ingot fell short of the bench, though, and cut the face of a writer on press row, requiring several stitches to close.
Clearly, the WAC isn't the only league with fans getting out of bounds. Georgetown's Allen Iverson - convicted of three felonies (pending an appeal) for participating in a brawl that injured a number of people in a game - was taunted with calls of "jailbird" at a game in Pittsburgh. And when the Hoyas met Villanova in Philadelphia, fans held signs comparing him to O.J. Simpson.
At Utah State this season, fans threw toilet paper, peanuts and a milkshake onto the court after the Aggies scored their first points. A Boise State player slipped on the milkshake and required orthroscopic surgery to repair cartilage damage.
It is obvious that in many venues, fans have taken their taunting the extreme. They have no intention of cheering for their team, only to harass the opposition. Short of playing the games in a gym with glass barriers surrounding the court, though, it is hard to imagine completely stopping such abuses.
As a result of Benson's letter, schools around the WAC are adding uniformed security guards near the visiting benches. Fresno State already had such a measure in place, and the Bulldogs say they haven't had any problems.
But no matter how much security is involved, it's not easy to patrol what's yelled from the stands. In such cases, the best answer isn't for the coach to call security, turn and fight, or even phone the commissioner. As Andersen proved a long time ago, you can't be insulted by what you don't hear.