UK Men's Basketball

Death threats against refs? Here’s why some Kentucky fans keep going too far.

Kentucky running back Benny Snell was escorted off the field after being ejected for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Northwestern early in the second quarter of last season’s Music City Bowl. Kentucky’s players and coaches have called it a learning experience that they’re ready to move on from.
Kentucky running back Benny Snell was escorted off the field after being ejected for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Northwestern early in the second quarter of last season’s Music City Bowl. Kentucky’s players and coaches have called it a learning experience that they’re ready to move on from.

The news last week of fans making threatening phone calls to the referee who ejected Kentucky running back Benny Snell from the Music City Bowl probably brought a knowing smile to the face of Dan Wann.

A professor of psychology at Murray State, Wann has researched fan attitudes and behaviors. When asked a few weeks ago what he thought of Kentucky fans threatening the life of basketball referee John Higgins last spring, Wann said, “More of the same.”

Then Wann chuckled.

In other words, fan misbehavior is not new. Fans identify with teams. So to lash out is a way for fans to cope with disappointment and defeat without having to blame “their” players (i.e. themselves), Wann said. He likened it to a student saying the dog ate his homework to explain not having done an assignment.

“If you have your choice to either say my team sucks or the refs suck, which is going to make you feel better?” Wann said.

Music City Bowl head official Chris Coyte received a “barrage of threatening calls to his cell and office phones” after he worked UK’s bowl game against Northwestern, according to ESPN.

This echoed the death threats and harassing calls directed at Higgins after he worked Kentucky’s loss to North Carolina in last year’s NCAA Tournament.

“Of course, to say I’m going to blame the refs, and I’m going to make a death threat to the ref, that’s a whole other level,” Wann said. “That’s taking it to its extreme, I guess.”

What if you were Higgins or Coyte? How much anxiety would the threats cause?

“I would probably have some,” Wann said. “And I’ll tell you why: Monica Seles. I just always go back to that. How many people out there are crazy enough to do something? Well, if the number is one, then you probably should have some anxiety.”

On April 30, 1993, a fan of German tennis star Steffi Graf came out of the stands and stabbed Seles in the back during a break in her match against Magdalena Maleeva.

Given the threats against Higgins and Coyte, it would seem fans are angrier than ever. Or do fans simply have more ways to express anger?

“Both,” Wann said. “There’s no doubt that our society is less civil than it once was.”

Wann recalled looking at photographs of fans watching games in the 1940s and 1950s. Men wore suits. Women wore dresses.

To be a fan then meant you “did not fear for your life if you wear the wrong team’s hat,” Wann said. “So if society is less civil, then why would we think fans would be anything different?”

UK fans and students recoiled when asked about the threats on Higgins’ life.

“I’m passionate about Kentucky basketball,” said Lyndsey Justice, a freshman from Louisville. “But some people go overboard.”

Delaney Young, also a freshman from Louisville, called the threats against Higgins “absurd.”

Bob Beavers, a 63-year-old retiree from Erlanger, said, “I think it’s terrible. I think death threats are uncalled for.”

A season-ticket holder since 1999, Beavers said he watched the UK-UNC game and saw nothing that warranted death threats. “It was just a basketball game,” he said.

Another UK fan, Larry Bartlett, saw fan behavior trending downward. “I’m expecting it to happen: somebody coming out of the stands,” he said.

With the news of harassment of Coyte making fresh headlines, John Calipari, coincidentally or not, used his radio show Wednesday to praise Kentucky fans.

UK has the “classiest fans,” he said. “Teams come in, there are issues that they have, we don’t put up banners. We don’t charge the court. We cheer on our team. We don’t really cheer against the other team. You don’t hear us in there booing.”

Wann accepted the notion that a classy fan base could include those who make death threats.

“Well, I think every fan base has their rotten eggs,” he said. “If you go to Little League baseball games, you’ll find a rotten egg. Go to Murray State football games, you’ll find a rotten egg. They’re everywhere.

“And so I think most fan bases are classy if you define classy as people who are appropriate, don’t cuss and don’t do things that would embarrass you.”

Inciting violence?

The death threats directed at referee John Higgins and harassing calls to referee Chris Coyte followed complaints by UK officials.

In his postgame news conference after the loss to North Carolina, John Calipari said, “You know, it’s amazing that we were in that game where they practically fouled out my team. . . . There was a lot of stuff that went on, and our kids fought through it. I told them at halftime, it is what it is. And you’ve got to beat who’s out there.”

And supposedly the menacing calls to Coyte dwindled significantly in the weeks after the Music City Bowl. But the calls then spiked when the Herald-Leader reported a letter Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart sent to the to the Pac-12 director of officials critical of Coyte and his crew.

This raises a question: Should coaches and administrators be cautious in their comments and actions for fear of inciting violence?

Barnhart declined an interview request.

Wann thinks coaches and administrators should be mindful of how fans will react to their words and deeds. “They need to be quite cognizant of that,” he said. “One of the things I always tell my students is that these social rules for behavior, they’re top-down. In almost all instances, they’re top-down.”

Wann recalled a famous incident at a Missouri-Oklahoma game in 1989 involving then Sooners’ Coach Billy Tubbs. When debris was thrown onto the court to protest a call, Tubbs took a microphone and told fans, “Regardless of how terrible the officiating is, please don’t throw things onto the floor.”

Referee Ed Hightower gave Tubbs a technical foul.

Said Wann: “Fans are going to see if coaches and players and administrators are all thinking it’s all right to act like this. Then, guess what? It must be OK to act like that.”

Wann had mixed feelings about Calipari’s pointed comments after Kentucky lost to North Carolina.

“It’s going to give license to fans’ actions,” he said. “It’s going to justify them. A fan is going to say, ‘Well, even our coach is making the argument that the officials were horrible and against us.’”

But, Wann added a moment later, he appreciated Calipari speaking truthfully about his feelings.

“You should never be ashamed of your emotions,” Wann said. “Always own your emotions because there’s nothing more human than emotion.”

History made?

Whether he ever plays, Brian Bowen has already made South Carolina basketball history. Of course, he originally signed with Louisville and then transferred in the wake of an FBI investigation into college basketball.

The recruiting service 24/7 Sports ranked Bowen No. 19 in the nation. He is considered a five-star player.

To which South Carolina Coach Frank Martin said, “If you go by rankings, which to me are irrelevant, he is the highest-rated player to ever come to South Carolina.”

Another ejection?

While another ejection of John Calipari at South Carolina would have made for good television, and three early exits in his last four games there, Frank Martin was hoping it wouldn’t happen.

“I don’t like it when he gets tossed,” the South Carolina coach said before the game. “I like it when he stays in. He’s one of the good guys in this business.”

Congratulations

When Ohio State beat Northwestern 71-65 Wednesday, Jessamine County native Chris Holtmann became the first coach in 95 years to win his first seven Big Ten games.

The last coaches to win their first seven Big Ten games were Wisconsin’s Walter Meanwell (1911-12) and Iowa’s Sam Barry (1922-23).

“It really does not mean anything,” Holtmann said after the game. “I think that’s a reflection on the players as much as anything. We’ve got a group that really likes each other. And it’s easy to like each other when you’re on the streak that we’re on right now, but I sensed that they even liked each other when we had some rough spots earlier in the year.”

Bleeding Blue

The Kentucky Blood Center will be holding its annual blood drive in Rupp Arena on Monday from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Donors can take shots on the Rupp baskets before or after making a blood donation that potentially could save a life.

The donations in Rupp Arena will be part of the annual Big Blue Slam, a competition for donations between fans of Kentucky and Florida.

The slam runs Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fans can donate blood in Lexington (Beaumont Center and Andover Donor Center), Louisville (Shelbyville Road), Somerset (Stoplight 16A) and Pikeville (South Mayo Trail).

Donors must be 17 years old (or 16 with parental permission), weigh at least 110 pounds and be in good health.

More information is available at kybloodcenter.org or by calling 800-775-2522, ext. 3758.

Happy birthday

To Oliver Simmons. He turned 42 on Thursday. … To UK recruit Tyler Herro. He turned 18 on Saturday. … To former Alabama player and coach Mark Gottfried. He turned 54 on Saturday. … To Larry Conley. He turns 74 on Monday. … To Perry Stevenson. He turns 31 on Tuesday. … To former Tennessee coach Kevin O’Neill. He turns 61 on Wednesday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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