From Dr. Charles J. Holden, a historian at St. Marys College in Maryland:
Coach Mike Krzyzewskis recent comments on player safety after a University of Virginia crowd stormed the court to celebrate defeating Duke is actually the latest installment of a century-long discussion over crowd control at collegiate athletic events. As we head into March Madness, it is worth considering previous incidents of crowd misbehavior and what the issue suggests about the place of college sports in our culture.
Current crowd behavior is in fact fairly tame compared with the past. In the UNC student newspaper, The Tar Heel, one can find numerous accounts of crowd control controversies. During the 1904 football game between UNC and Virginia, played in Richmond, a reporter expressed frustration when after just 10 minutes of action, the enormous crowd was simply taking the field and causing play to stop. Mayor Carlton McCarthy called in every available police man. Even after law enforcement roped off the sidelines the reporter still worried, Im afraid it wont do much good.
Coaches also had to contend with people running onto the field after spectacular plays. In the 1898 clash between the same schools, UNC halfback E. V. Howell shortly after halftime broke off a long run to score. The Carolina crowd rushed the field brushing aside the officials, grabbed Howell and rode him about on their shoulders, and shouted and danced. The UNC reserves also got into the act as they rushed to the middle of the field and executed a lively two-step and Highland fling with the starters.
Crowds would also interfere with practice. In 1899, the Tar Heel reported, The necessity of keeping spectators off the field is seen every afternoon in the practice games.
College baseball also faced crowd control issues. Spectators at the 1902 game between UNC and UVA continued to press over the lines, without the least regard for the ladies or the occupants of the seats. Eventually fisticuffs broke out that left two spectators faces besmeared with blood. The fight prompted a full-scale brawl involving over two hundred people in which several blows were exchanged.
While these accounts often make for amusing reading, they also offer perspective on collegiate athletics as a part of our popular culture. There is a growing school of thought that analyzes the significance of our desire to participate somehow in the popular culture that we consume. It is, for example, not enough to purchase an album on iTunes for ones personal listening enjoyment. One must also contribute to the albums cultural presence through status and Spotify updates on Facebook or messages sent via Twitter. Or, one could consider interactive television shows like American Idol which are hugely popular because they encourage us to join in the event.
But what these stories from the past suggest is that, when it comes to sports at least, it has always been difficult to just observe and then rejoice in our teams big win. We have long wanted to somehow be a part of it. Coach Krzyzewskis legitimate worries remind us that the tension between the action on the court and the crowds behavior is not just a matter of security or hooliganism; it is and has been a fundamental part of our modern culture. College officials will no doubt continue to struggle to find the proper balance between the joy and heartbreak that athletics engender, and the appropriate expression of those emotions. But that challenge will likely become more difficult by the relentless inducements to participate in those parts of our popular culture that capture our interest.