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Taunting at high school games is a challenge for administrators

Woburn fans chanted “We can’t hear you,” at Bishop Feehan fans on the other side of the court at a state girls’ basketball semifinal on Monday at TD Garden.
Woburn fans chanted “We can’t hear you,” at Bishop Feehan fans on the other side of the court at a state girls’ basketball semifinal on Monday at TD Garden.(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

In 20 years as a high school athletic director, Phil Vaccaro heard it all.

“The cheerleaders are ugly, the administrators are dumb, the kids stink, the parents are this, the mascot is that,” said Vaccaro, offering a taste of the taunts that emanated more often from opposing bleachers than from his own. On his side, few of the home fans in Reading dared, knowing he was a hawk who would swoop in at the first sign of heckling.

Now he works for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, where just last week — days before Catholic Memorial and Newton North High exchanged offensive chants — officials were feeling good about the absence of any major taunting incidents across the various winter postseason tournaments conducted by the MIAA.

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Indeed, in a message to the MIAA board, executive director Bill Gaine hailed “the quality of competition, the support and behavior of fans, and the sportsmanship of participants” in tournament games featuring 800 teams and drawing tens of thousands of student-athletes and spectators. And then anti-Semitic chants erupted the next night during that playoff game in Newton, thrusting Massachusetts school-sports spectators into the national spotlight.

Officials here say that incident was an aberration, citing the work of MIAA and school policies, of an annual fall sportsmanship summit for 1,000-plus student-athletes at Gillette Stadium, and of a spring “Battle of the Fans” contest for positive booster videos. They also attributed it to perpetual vigilance on the part of athletic directors and other staff monitoring the stands.

“It’s a hard thing. It’s not a sometimes thing, my friend,” said Vaccaro, who previously emblazoned all of Reading’s athletic trash barrels with the motto “Sportsmanship, Character, Integrity” and once spent an entire Super 8 hockey championship at TD Garden with his back to the ice — concerned less with the on-ice outcome than “the reputation of my community.”

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Still, some officials in Massachusetts worry that teen taunting is getting more vulgar and more frequent — either because parents or other adults are more reluctant than in previous generations to “nip it,” as Vaccaro put it, or because teens are mimicking fever-pitch college crowds and gaining a wider audience for their antics through social media.

“It’s a challenge, and it’s getting more and more difficult,” said Rob Pearl, athletic director at Medway High. “A lot of the kids go to a college game or watch a game on TV and see what the college kids are doing, and think it would be funny for a high school game as well, and it doesn’t always amount to the same amount of quote-unquote fun.”

Winter is the toughest season, they say, because taunts that might die in the wind on a wide-open field reverberate in enclosed gyms and rinks, and because elbow-to-elbow bleachers provide both more kindling for taunts to spread and more cover for offenders to hide in a crowd.

“It’s kind of an anonymous attack on somebody. That’s the culture that a lot of kids are growing up in now,” said John Lilly, a Boston teacher who coaches and officiates multiple sports and runs a volunteer service program for 500 student-athletes in Newton, where he lives.

Lilly said integrity on the court remains constant but bleacher behavior is eroding. “Over the years the focus has drifted from being a positive support group for their players versus aiming insults, which takes away from the accomplishments of the athletes on both teams,” he said.

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The MIAA’s taunting policy prohibits any comments “intended to bait, anger, embarrass, ridicule, or demean others, whether or not the deeds or words are vulgar or racist” and includes anything “that berates, needles, intimidates, or threatens based on race, gender, ethnic origin or background, and conduct that attacks religious beliefs, size, economic status, speech, family, special needs or personal matters.” Should that not cover everything, there is a blanket prohibition on any kind of “trash talk.”

In other words, the ban starts with “air ball!” and covers everything downhill from there, including the long history of trash talk on socioeconomic grounds — “pump our gas,” “it’s all right, it’s OK, you’ll all work for us someday” — and sordid other subjects.

Taunts tend to start small and escalate. In Medway, Pearl is quick to eject trash-talkers, signalling that attending a game is a privilege, not a right. “I’ve been criticized by parents who say, ‘I don’t let the kids have fun at games,’ but it’s a fine line,” said Pearl, chairman of the 20-member MIAA Sportsmanship Committee that Vaccaro advises. “How do you explain to a 15-, 16-, 17-year-old what’s fun and what’s offensive?”

At last Friday’s game, according to witnesses, the volley of mocking between student sections began with Newton North fans calling “where’s your girls?” and the all-boys Catholic Memorial fans retorting, “in your section.” Calls of “sausagefest!” from Newton followed, which many construed as homophobic, before widespread Catholic Memorial taunts of “you killed Jesus!” left many on the Newton side speechless.

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Administrators from both schools stopped the taunts and admonished both sides; Catholic Memorial students apologized to Newton North’s interim principal and shook his hand one by one.

Officials at the West Roxbury school also announced plans to hold assemblies and bolster their tolerance curriculum, and they banned students from attending Monday’s Eastern Massachusetts championship game.

Cambridge Rindge and Latin athletic director Tom Arria — whose team beat Catholic Memorial in that game Monday — and other ADs said a school should not be judged by one taunt but by how it responds to such an incident.

Arria, who has worked at multiple urban and suburban schools, is not convinced that today’s students jeer any more than their forebears did.

He noted the “Patrick Can’t Read!” taunts that rained down from BC High fans on Cambridge star Patrick Ewing, a soft-spoken Jamaican immigrant, at the old Garden in 1981, and that followed Ewing from that scholastic title game into opposing college arenas in the Big East.

“Administrators at all schools try hard. We’re in education for a reason — we want what’s best for kids; we want them to learn what’s right and wrong,” Arria said. “Occasionally a group of teenagers can veer off in a direction, and sometimes it carries, and sometimes we’re able to manage it a little bit better. You do your best to keep them on the right path.”

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Bishop Stang fans cheered as the school’s boys’ basketball team played Bedford on Tuesday in the Division 3 state semifinals at TD Garden.
Bishop Stang fans cheered as the school’s boys’ basketball team played Bedford on Tuesday in the Division 3 state semifinals at TD Garden.(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at eric.moskowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMoskowitz.