The same Sunday afternoon that a court-storming Ohio State fan collided with Iowa star Caitlin Clark, a court-storming Tulane fan put his hand on Memphis player David Jones. Now there is an outcry that starts with: Get those fans off the court and keep ‘em off!
I’d rather we forego that reaction and have a discussion instead.
We can start with this premise, as articulated by Oral Roberts coach Russell Springmann on his drive home from practice Monday night: “The number one priority is safety. For the players but also the fans. You want the fans to have a great experience. But at the same time, you don’t want to jeopardize somebody’s safety in doing so.”
“Safety’s first,” Oklahoma coach Porter Moser said on a media Zoom Monday afternoon.
That should have been our mantra all along since fans have rushed basketball courts for eons. Now that we have seen what happened to Clark and Jones, it must be our mantra moving forward.
Must we keep the fans off courts to make it so? Not necessarily.
“Cincinnati had a court storming against TCU,” Moser said.
The Bearcats beat the Horned Frogs in overtime on Jan. 16 for their first home Big 12 Conference victory. Fans reacted accordingly.
OU was next to play at Cincinnati on Jan. 20.
“Literally an hour and a half before our game, security pulled me aside and said, ‘If Cincinnati wins and they run, this is what’s going to happen,’” Moser said. “He goes, ‘You’re going to shake their hands and we’ve got a whole tunnel for you to go right to a door right behind their bench.’ So they were completely prepared. They had security there. So I think the preparation is part of it.”
Preparation is pretty much all of it. Universities enact specific court-storming protocols at their arenas, or universities keep fans off their courts.
Since court-storming is a university experience – it’s students storming to join players, who might be friends as much as classmates, in revelry – surely universities don’t want to resort to all-out bans.
Thus every athletic director in college basketball must be in contact with every game operations official and ensure there is a plan in place. That means the game ops official ensuring that plan with security, and then security detailing the plan to the visiting program as Cincinnati’s security did with Moser.
Security must rush to protect visiting players and coaches as fans rush their court. This is twofold — a wall of security between the traditional postgame handshake line and the on-court celebration, and separate security personnel whose job is to protect individual visiting players who might be compromised by location.
Clark was running from the opposite side of the court from the handshake line and isolated when she collided with the Ohio State fan. Jones was near the handshake line at Tulane, but was seated on the court as the horn sounded and fans poured onto the floor. Security raced to form a barrier behind him but did not prevent a Green Wave fan from putting his hand on Jones’ back.
Springmann said he didn’t notice the Jones incident specifically as he watched the end of that game, but did notice Tulane security struggling to beat fans onto the court. That brought him back to 2003, when he was an assistant on a Longhorns’ Final Four team.
“We played at Colorado. They beat us and stormed the court,” Springmann said. “I understand why. We were good and it was an upset.”
“A fan running onto the court wasn’t paying attention and bumped into our player,” he said. “The kid that got run into was 6-9 with broad shoulders. I was nearby and when he got bumped, and he got bumped pretty good. I thought, ‘Oh no.’
“He’s a great kid but In that moment after you’ve just lost a game and it’s physical and somebody runs into you, there’s certainly a defensive reaction that takes place. To our kid’s credit, he did not react in a negative way. ‘I’m just gonna keep it moving and get back to the locker room.’”
Credit James Thomas, the Texas player referenced here, for keeping his cool at Colorado. Credit Jones for keeping his cool at Tulane.
And if you think that’s asking the least, ask yourself whether you would keep your cool in mayhem like that.
Ask yourself whether Springmann is onto something when he proposes a court-storming solution.
“The players are trying to shake hands after the game, and depending on where the student section is, and how large the student section is, could determine what your protocols are,” he said. “Let’s say the students are on the same side that the benches are on. What does that look like? How are you going to prevent them from running through players, and potentially opposing players and opposing coaches, to get onto the floor?
“Or is there an opportunity to say, ‘Hey we’re gonna let you on the court, but it’s after opposing players and coaches are off the floor.’ Right? To me, that would be a plan that in my mind should keep everybody in a position where nobody’s running into an opposing player or an opposing coach. They (court rushers) know their players. They’re not gonna do anything except probably dap ‘em up. ‘Great game.’ And they still get to be on the court and everybody’s happy.
“A temporary delay where it’s roped off, then we’re letting you on.”
A delayed court storm beats none at all. It beats endangering players like Clark and Jones.
“I saw what happened to Caitlin. Man, it was terrible,” Moser said. “I saw Purdue at Nebraska. I was listening to Painter talk about it.”
Nebraska beat No. 1 Purdue Jan. 9, Husker fans stormed the court and Boilermakers coach Matt Painter said: “I don’t know why institutions aren’t ready for it… A student from Nebraska should be able to storm the court, right? We’re cool. (Just) get ready for it.”
Painter also said: “Someone is going to get hurt.”
Two weeks later, Clark appeared to get hurt. She said she got the wind knocked out of her by the Ohio State fan but was OK. Thank goodness for that.
Thank goodness for her reasonable postgame perspective.
“These are games you love to play in. Eighteen thousand people here. I can see them storming the court, which is totally fine,” she told reporters in Columbus. “I was just trying to exit the court as quickly as possible, so I started running and was absolutely just hammered by somebody trying to run onto the court and basically blindsided.”
We have to square these two things, when one of the joys of college sports literally collides with potential consequences. We do it occasionally during football season and fields are stormed.
Let’s take some time to square things now that courts are being stormed. Let’s not react to one extreme or the other and do some thinking, while agreeing on a fundamental principle shared by Iowa women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder before leaving Ohio State:
“Our players should be safe.”