The Wisconsin high school athletics association blew its whistle on fans' unsportsmanlike taunts and negative chants — including "air ball" and "season's over" — and directed administrators in an email last month to call fouls on such jeers.
Weeks later, the association's executive director has apologized to athletic directors for the distractions from widespread ridicule that followed the note, which he said Wednesday was intended as a reminder of a longstanding sportsmanship policy, not a crackdown on enthusiasm.
"The intention of the message was misconstrued and morphed into something far beyond what it was and what it was intended for," said Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletics Association's David Anderson, who added that he stands by the guidelines.
The issue came to a head this week after a basketball player in northern Wisconsin was suspended after she saw the memo and responded with a profanity-laced tweet that was critical of the WIAA. From there, sports media outlets, pundits and fans began mocking the regulations as coddling and overprotective. Sports Illustrated wrote, "The 'W' in WIAA technically stands for 'Wisconsin' but it should really stand for 'Whining.'"
The following words were banned:
• “There’s a net there”
• “We can’t hear you”
• “Air ball”
• “You can’t do that”
• “Season’s over” (during tournament play)
To protest the rules, students at Ashwaubenon High School taped their mouths during a game.
For what it's worth, Anderson and WIAA Communications Director Todd Clark acknowledge that fans still shout negative chants, including "air ball." But they say their guidelines are intentionally broad so schools have an easier time identifying behavior that can lead to fights and online bullying.
Bob Gardner, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, said Wisconsin's policy isn't overly restrictive and fits in with his group's "universal emphasis" on sportsmanship. His group works with sports-governing organizations in each state, which he said all have policies that expect fans and players to be positive.
Still, Whitefish Bay Athletic Director John Gustavson said, the policy "lives in a world that's not the real world."
If a shot doesn't hit the goal, students yell "'air ball' three or four times, then we move on," he said.