As the 2018-2019 regular season comes to a close, Sarah Lawrence athletics is celebrating –not only are the men’s team the winningest team is school history and headed to the Skyline Conference championship tournament, but the women’s team, in only their second year as a varsity squad, picked up their first win within the Skyline Conference, a 65-63 nail-biter over Yeshiva. However, as both teams reflect on their season and look forward to next year, one of the few elements outside of their control lies within crowd control, specifically crude comments opposing fans direct toward Gryphons players.
“On the women’s team in particular, it’s gotten really complicated with crowd control,” says forward Alexa Zartman-Ball (‘21). “The crowd gets really interactive, and sadly the crowd is mostly men and they start yelling either really sexual comments or just really inappropriate comments.”
In her second year with the Gryphons, Zartman-Ball believes that the Skyline Conference, the NCAA athletic conference the Gryphons are affiliated with, has not adequately addressed the harassment.
“In high school, there was such strict rules about sportsmanship and acting appropriately, especially when you wanted to be recruited,” explains Zartman-Ball. “In college, there’s no punishment for... crude behavior within our Skyline Conference. The attendants feel like they can get away with a lot more, especially at women’s games.”
Obscene language, trash talk, harassment–all these terms refer to insults and comments made by opposing fans and players during a game. While these instances may escalate into physical altercations, they are typically less pronounced, shouted by fans during free throws or whispered by players to one another before the whistle blows.
While Zartman-Ball believes this behavior is more prevalent at women’s games, with many comments bordering on sexual harassment or other sexist language, Enike Anyia (‘21) recalls similar crude behavior leading to contention between men’s team, albeit less frequently.
“There was an issue two years in the past that I’ve heard about,” remembers Anyia.
While he admits he is not fully aware of the frequency the women’s team is experiencing the unsportsmanlike conduct, he says he witnessed crude behavior from an opposing fan at an away game earlier this season.
“There was one time we went to Mount Saint Mary, there was this one guy who was completely out of line,” said Anyia. “Luckily the [referees] took care of it and the guy was forced to leave.”
Zartman-Ball also recalls other serious occasions of rude behavior from fans; one instance took place at SUNY Maritime earlier this season.
“I remember [fans] yelling ‘pussy grabbers’ and things like that [at the team],” explains Zartman-Ball. “I think the only way we rose above that situation was deflecting.”
While the effects of fan harassment cannot be quantified, a study conducted by Cornell University found that trash talk can elicit heightened emotional responses from the receiving team. The Gryphons were playing with only five players that day, and Zartman-Ball believes the harassment from fans only contributed to team exhaustion.
“Some of us cried at halftime. I think it got under some of our skins and we just weren’t prepared for male inappropriate behavior like that. We weren't prepared for something to happen because at Sarah Lawrence we have a higher standard for student behavior and some schools don’t,” says Zartman-Ball.
However, this language can also translate into behavior from opposing teams. When players get emotional, they are more likely to foul–something Anyia said he tries to remain cognizant of.
“Unless I truly want to, I never let [myself] succumb to emotion,” explains Anyia. “It’s a great way to spur the team to get going, but it’s all about keeping composure.”
The composure Anyia describes means players must keep emotional responses, both physical and verbal, in check. Failing to do so can encourage further physical confrontation or technical fouls against players. In an effort to minimize these occurrences, Anyia says the team has a go-to plan when fans become too involved.
“Our Athletic Director, Kristen [Maile] has told us to go right to [the referees] point out what’s happening and they’ll take care of it,” claims Anyia. “They’ll go to the Skyline Conference to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Unfortunately, Zartman-Ball claims, those precautions don’t always work, particularly against programs that seem to condone unsportsmanlike fan behavior.
“At Maritime, their Athletic Director said this was [the students’] outlet and that it was fine and appropriate,” says Zartman-Ball. “I just remember being so taken aback by that. Even if we tell the referees, even if we tell the different athletic directors in the conference that this is happening to us as a women’s team it hasn’t changed and I think that’s something that’s a greater issue for us to be having.”
Although Zartman-Ball does believe this season has seen a decline in obscene language from fans, she is still frustrated at what she believes to be a lack of accountability from schools whose fans exhibit this behavior.
“It speaks a lot to the school’s willingness to get involved in a situation like that and our league’s ability, or lacking of ability, to get involved in a situation of unsportsmanship,” explains Zartman-Ball.
Zartman-Ball also plays for the soccer and softball teams at SLC. While she doesn’t necessarily believe any sport is inherently predisposed to harassment, she notices it much more with basketball.
“In softball there’s a barrier from outfield to grass, so we can’t always hear what people are saying, so it’s not as bad. Same with soccer; the field is so big and the crowd is so far away from us that you can’t really hear the commentary that is going on,” says Zartman-Ball. “I think in basketball it just may be more noticeable because the crowd is more noticable visible and you can hear it more.”
Furthermore, because women’s teams have a generally lower attendance than men’s games, the jeers echo even louder in such a small space. Although Zartman-Ball does not believe it is strictly a women’s issue, she believes there is a gendered aspect to it.
“There has been less attendance at women’s games there’s been more said at women's games, and I really don't know why the trend is going up or why the trend of people attending women's games is going down, and why more people saying negative things at women’s games is going up,” says Zartman-Ball.
In 2018, a group of WNBA stars spoke out about the sexist commentary many female sports players experience, describing the emotional exhaustion resulting from the disrespectful behavior. Only in their second season as a varsity team, and with a small roster contributing to early team fatigue, women’s basketball is learning firsthand the psychological effects of unsportsmanlike conduct.
“Being such a young team, it takes such a hard effect. Our younger players take it personally the things that are said, even though they aren’t meant to be taken personally,” explains Zartman-Ball. “It definitely affects team morale negatively.”
However, Zartman-Ball also believes the team is considering the instances as an ongoing learning experience, one that the team will continue to face as the program grows.
“Women's basketball has something special here and that's we’re a family. Something that happens when we get down from a crowd or fans being mean to us is that we pick up one another up,” says Zartman-Ball. “As us players are getting older we’ve started to teach younger players what you did when this happens. I think it’s knowledge we have to pass down as our team gets older and older, but since we’re so young that game plan is still developing.”
Once the teams are hit with instances of fan aggression or trash talk on the court, both Anyia and Zartman-Ball have learned to block out the negative comments.
“We’re told, ‘don’t get physical, don’t lose your head, this is your game,’” says Anyia. “We have been trained, but as a certain point we expect ourselves to be booed to be yelled at to be criticized, so we get used to it, we use it to fuel us or block it out.”
Although Zartman-Ball says her high school did not have a problem with trash talk, Anyia says it was frequent throughout his athletic career. After that experience–where he says he was called racist slurs during free throws, among other forms of intimidation–Anyia has worked to not let the words affect him on the court.
“I went to a very competitive high school and I’ve already learned how to block out noise,” says Enike.
However, blocking out the noise also means blocking out the cheers. As SLC athletics become more popular and draw more fans in each game, Zartman-Ball is eager to ensure that obscene language and trash talk does not become part of the culture.
“We as a Sarah Lawrence community just need to have a higher standard for ourselves. We as a community need to uphold that no matter where we are on campus and we need to prove that within our league if nobody else is going to follow it Sarah Lawrence is,” says Zartman-Ball.
As Zartman-Ball says, Sarah Lawrence holds athletes and students to a high standard, and school policy and safe environments should not only exist outside the gym, but throughout campus. While unsportsmanlike conduct may be commonplace within other teams in the conference, Zartman-Ball believes that Sarah Lawrence can help change that culture.
“We’ll be the leader,” she says. “The example to show other schools what should be happening.”
Representatives from the Skyline Conference and participating schools did not respond to request for comment.
Bella Rowland-Reid ‘21