VPA authorities take aim at poor fan behavior

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/17/2022 9:24:35 PM
Modified: 8/17/2022 9:21:08 PM

MONTPELIER — After multiple incidents last year involving fans verbally harassing student-athletes and referees, the Vermont Principals Association is working to encourage positive fan behavior as the need for more officials increases.

Last October, the Hartford High girls soccer team walked off the field during a game at Fair Haven after people in the home student section reportedly sexually harassed the Hurricanes’ players throughout the second half. At the VPA Division III boys basketball championship game between Hazen and Winooski, announcer Brent Curtis said he had to shut off the crowd microphone because of insults hurled at the officials. And a boys soccer playoff game between Winooski and Enosburg Falls was played on a neutral field without spectators due to allegations of racial abuse when the teams met earlier in the season.

“We don’t have control over other people’s behavior. All we can do is respond to it and try to be proactive on the front of it,” VPA executive director Jay Nichols said at the organization’s annual media day on Wednesday. “We have to take strong action against people when they do engage in those behaviors.”

Before every VPA-sanctioned sporting event, the public address announcer reads a statement emphasizing good sportsmanship and reminding players, coaches and fans that all competitions should be “free from hazing, harassment and bullying of any kind.” The VPA also released an online reporting form last year to gather information and identify patterns for the governing body to focus on.

With no more COVID-19 restrictions on spectators and masking mandates, all events have the potential for full-capacity crowds until further notice, so the VPA will continue to be on high alert for unruly behavior.

“Another way we want to look at this, too, is having opportunities for school cheering sections to be celebrated for their creativity and for their work,” said Lauren Thomas, the VPA’s new assistant executive director. “Some of our reports were coming from cheering sections of a group of students. If you’re sitting next to your 5-year-old, you feel comfortable bringing your family to the event — I’m not saying that hasn’t been the feeling, but really ensuring that we’re having family-friendly events.”

Next up: Esports? Nichols and Thomas discussed the possibility of adding esports — competitive video gaming — to the VPA’s jurisdiction. Connecticut became the first state to sponsor high school esports in 2017, and in the Upper Valley, Hartford and Mascoma both have club teams.

Many athletic directors in Vermont also oversee other activities, including visual and performing arts, so esports would fall under that umbrella as well.

Thomas said esports fit the four criteria to qualify as a sport: they are human, physical, skill-based and institutionalized. The VPA would limit esports offerings to nonviolent games such as Rocket League, Madden NFL and NBA 2K.

“We would like to plan instead of react to esports,” Thomas said. “I know that for athletic-minded folks, starting an esports league can feel uncomfortable because it goes contrary to some of the beliefs of wanting to get away from the computer, but there’s a lot of value in esports (with) connections that students can make with folks they might not normally speak to or interact with in a school day. There’s opportunities for collaboration and problem solving.”

New athletic directors galore: This school year will see 17 Vermont athletic directors start new positions, including five of the nine VPA schools in the Upper Valley.

Bri Barnes, a former AD at Oxbow, has replaced Blendon Salls at Thetford Academy. James Bourn is taking over for Ross Convertino at Rivendell Academy, and Bryan Woodbury replaces Jim Taft at Windsor. Heidi Wright moved from White River Valley to Oxbow, replacing Derek Cipriano, and Tim Perreault has filled the position at WRV.

The athletic directors who have not previously worked in that role attended a training session hosted by Thomas and Mount Mansfield AD David Marlow, where they took their Leadership Training Institute course from the National Interscholastic Athletic Directors Association. The VPA will also host weekly drop-in meetings for ADs to express concerns and share upcoming plans for their schools.

“Athletic directors are the backbone to a lot of sports programs, and supporting athletic directors to have longevity creates good programs and is good for kids,” Thomas said. “We really need to start looking at what our feeder programs look up and building the base of that so it matriculates up into our high school sports programs.”

Benjamin Rosenberg can be reached at brosenberg@vnews.com or 603-727-3302.

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