The SEC is considering drastic punishments for fans storming the field

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Picture this potential scenario in the Southeastern Conference this fall: On Sept. 30 in Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn takes down undefeated, No. 1–ranked, two-time reigning national champion Georgia. Tigers fans celebrate their first victory over the rival Bulldogs since 2017 by storming the field.

And in response, the SEC moves Auburn’s next home game against Georgia, in 2025, to Athens. The Tigers would play the Bulldogs between the hedges three straight seasons, 2024 to ’26. That would be the price for storming the field.

Sound like a draconian penalty for something that has been part of the fabric of college sports for decades? Well, it’s on the table as a possible sanction as the SEC searches for a stronger deterrent to field storming than six-figure fines.

A conference working group on event safety was appointed by commissioner Greg Sankey last November—less than three weeks after Tennessee fans tore down the goalposts following a victory over Alabama and just a day before LSU fans flooded the Tiger Stadium field to revel in an upset of the Crimson Tide. The working group, headed by Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne, Georgia AD Josh Brooks and Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart, has been gathering input and weighing options for several months.

Proposals for a new policy to deal with fans rushing the field or court are expected to be presented to the league’s full roster of athletic directors soon for discussion. From there, options for a revamped policy are likely to be advanced to the conference’s presidents and chancellors at SEC spring meetings May 30 to June 2 in Destin, Fla. Approved changes could be implemented for the 2023–24 athletic year.

The premise of losing a future SEC home game is just one of the policy changes that has been discussed by the working group. An even more drastic one—forfeiture of the game in which the field storm occurred—is unlikely to gain much traction. But there is general agreement that something more needs to be done beyond hitting schools in their fat wallets.

Alabama has been subjected to opposing fans storming the field after its last seven SEC road losses.

Gary Cosby Jr./USA TODAY Sports

In a league awash in both revenue and passion, schools that violate the policy tend to laugh off the financial penalties. (The first violation of the SEC event safety rules merits a $50,000, the second is $100,000 and each subsequent violation is $250,000.) Tennessee was docked $100,000 for the Alabama field storm, but school president Randy Boyd declared, with a victory cigar in hand, “It doesn’t matter. We’ll do this every year.” Even a pair of quarter-million-dollar fines for LSU last year after field storms against Mississippi and Alabama doesn’t create much of a disincentive for fans who aren’t paying the bills.

“The fact that field-rushing still happens means that the fine structure hasn’t solved all of our problems,” Sankey said at the Associated Press Sports Editors southeast region meeting in Birmingham last Monday, according to the Tuscaloosa News. “I would expect some level of updates as we go into the year ahead, one of which is a higher expectation for security around the visiting team when those field incursions take place.”

Toward that end, expect a major upgrade in planning by SEC home teams to keep fans who rush the field or court away from visitors who are trying to exit. Two incidents in the SEC last year underscored the potential for conflict when euphoric (and perhaps inebriated) field rushers cross paths with losing teams: Alabama receiver Jermaine Burton striking a Tennessee fan and Bama staffer Evan Van Nostrand needing a police escort to get to the locker room after being confronted by mouthy fans.

Guaranteeing safe passage off the field likely will mean a bigger security presence around the visiting bench area. It could mean a quickly cordoned-off walkway to the exit tunnel. In basketball, a pregame agreement to call off the customary postgame handshake line when a court storm is imminent could be enacted.

But there are no easy answers when thousands of exuberant fans exert their will. What sounds feasible in a boardroom doesn’t always translate to the playing field and the heat of a big moment.

Fans rushing a football field or basketball court after a momentous victory is part of college sports’ iconography, producing cherished moments for underdog schools and their fan bases. Actively working to take away those events might seem like a harrumphing, no-fun decision—but the reality is, field storms can produce dangerous situations and tragic outcomes.

Traumatic brain injury, spinal injury and even death have been byproducts of toppled goalposts. In October 2010, I personally watched Wisconsin students being pinned against a railing in Camp Randall Stadium and nearly crushed by their fellow fans who were surging forward behind them to get on the field after upsetting Ohio State—a harrowing scene. Miraculously, there were no serious injuries, but 17 years earlier that was not the case in that same venue. A field storm after beating Michigan resulted in 73 injuries, six of them critical.

The SEC has decided that the equation is simple: 100 largely inconsequential field stormings would not be worth a single one that goes wrong. It wouldn’t be worth a critical injury or loss of life. It wouldn’t be worth a serious violent encounter between fans and players or coaches. “When you have a level of momentum around thousands and thousands of people, you have to be careful,” Sankey said last week. “And there is some history in crowd management that suggests you be careful.”

The leaders of the SEC working group on event safety have either been on the wrong end of a field/court storm or could be in the near future. Alabama has been subjected to a field storming in its last seven SEC road losses—LSU and Tennessee last year, Texas A&M in 2021; Auburn in ’19, ’17 and ’13; and Mississippi in ’14. Kentucky has had to navigate postgame court stormings in men’s basketball several times since John Calipari became coach of the Wildcats in ’09. And, should Georgia ever lose on the road in the SEC again, the Bulldogs figure to be next up in the field-storm crosshairs now as the current king of college football.

It seems unlikely that Alabama or Georgia will ever storm the field for a football win, and Kentucky will never do it in men’s basketball. Would other SEC members that seem far more likely to storm at home then be stormed upon on the road vote for a loss-of-home-game penalty? That remains to be seen.

Of course, the conference leadership would have to decide what constitutes a legitimately unsafe fan incursion. That process could become a controversy in its own right. What if a handful of students—seniors, perhaps, who aren’t worried about a lost home game two years after graduation—get on the field? How many trespassers are enough to trigger a massive penalty?

If you thought replay reviews of targeting penalties are momentous, wait until the SEC office is spending a Sunday reviewing video footage of a field storm to decide whether it merits the loss of a future home game.

The potential penalty might seem excessive, but it could also provide a level of deterrence that alters behavior. Competitive disadvantage would motivate coaches to send a message to the fans, who also would tangibly penalized by the loss of a big home game two years hence. And the economic hit to the athletic department would far outweigh even a $500,000 fine—it would perhaps be 10 times that amount.

“It would only have to happen once,” said a conference administrator, and the rest of the league would likely be scared straight.

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About Marc Lemoine 1340 Articles
Marc is an Economist and a well experienced weightlifter who has won many championships. He intends to build a bright career in the media industry as well. He is a sports freak who loves to cover the latest news on sports, finance and economy.

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