On Monday afternoon in the United Kingdom, the people in charge of England’s national team learned their men would play their next two official games in an empty stadium, their fans banned because of violent misconduct, and before you depart because you suspect this is a soccer story, you should be warned it’s actually about Tennessee football.
What happened Saturday night in Knoxville did not rise to the level of calamity that developed in July at the Euro 2020 final at Wembley Stadium, when hundreds of fans without tickets crashed the gates and fought with security and police details. That the Tennessee mess toward the end of the Volunteers’ game against Ole Miss at Neyland Stadium engendered less carnage, though, might only been on account of lousy aim.
Among the hundreds of objects thrown by fans at Neyland Stadium into the bench areas, the apron surrounding the playing surface and the field itself was a golf ball, which landed at the feet of Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin.
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An event such as this in various sports could lead, as England learned, to one or more future games being contested “behind closed doors.” It happened with Mexico’s national men’s soccer team in a World Cup qualifying game against Jamaica as a result of habitual instances of a homophobic chant by some of the team’s fans.
Although there were many college football games played in empty stadiums in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, closing a stadium to fans as a punishment for untoward behavior is not something that happens in college football. That’s at least in part because athletic departments depend so heavily on income from home games in that sport to fund their operations.
It’s something that ought to be considered, though, if a school such as UT were to have multiple incidents of this sort.
Late Monday, as expected, the Southeastern Conference issued a fine to Tennessee athletics as a punishment for Saturday’s incidents. It was a shockingly low fine of $250,000, in light of that same penalty being assessed to Kentucky for the field-storming that occurred following its victory over Florida earlier this month. And don’t tell us about “repeat offender” status. This warranted a far more severe sanction.
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University of Tennessee chancellor Donde Plowman told the Knoxville News-Sentinel the school is working with police to identify fans who were throwing items from the stands toward the end of the game. If fans are determined to have been involved in this activity, they could lose the right to attend future games.
It might be an easier assignment to locate the fans who were not.
Among the items thrown onto the field in the final minutes of the game: a mustard bottle, pizza boxes, water bottles, beer cans, drink cups and that golf ball that would have caused more damage if it had struck Kiffin – an unpopular figure at Tennessee because of his abbreviated term as Vols head coach – in the face or skull.
Cheerleaders from both sides hustled out of the stadium to avoid the objects, some of them holding cheer placards over their heads as shields. Band members also were evacuated and Ole Miss team members left the bench area and moved onto the field so objects would have a harder time reaching them. It was a terrible look for college athletics.
It did not help that Tennessee’s student section – which was reported to be the greatest source of disruption – is located so close to the visiting bench. This is something that has been done over the years at various college athletic events and, in the 1990s, became such a problem that one major-college basketball conference ordered its members to move student sections away from the visiting bench in basketball.
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Tennessee is looking into installing cameras to monitor fan behavior. The university obviously is taking this event seriously. There were 18 arrests and 47 ejections, according to the News-Sentinel, but it was obvious there were many more people involved.
Some of them no doubt will get away with participating in what occurred Saturday. Which is why it’s it’s time for the SEC to at least warn Tennessee a behind-closed-doors penalty is not out of the question.
That would be harsh not only for the athletic department’s finances, but also those involved in out-of-control conduct– and those not, which might lead them to be more vigilant about helping identify those around them who cross the line in the future.