College fans gone wild: are court stormings becoming a dangerous problem?

<span>Wake Forest fans storm the court after a win over Duke last week. </span><span>Photograph: Grant Halverson/Getty Images</span>
Wake Forest fans storm the court after a win over Duke last week. Photograph: Grant Halverson/Getty Images

US college students seem to love running into a moshpit after big sporting victories. What’s the deal with that? It’s a tale as old as time in American college sports: field storming (or court storming, in the case of basketball). It has been happening for decades: The home team wins a game against a highly touted opponent, usually as an underdog, and then thousands of undergraduates celebrate by rushing out of their seats and streaming into a mass of humanity on the playing surface.

Sounds fun. Everyone must love that, right? Not exactly. Lately, a litany of coaches, administrators, and media have called for an end to field-storming. Duke men’s basketball coach Jon Scheyer, ESPN’s top analyst Jay Bilas, and some of the most high-profile athletic executives in the country are pushing for the elimination of the practice, with various proposed solutions to get it out of college sports.

Why is the uproar happening now? For years, a vocal minority has raised alarms about the bad things that might happen when boisterous college students flood into the playing area. Many of them are liquored up, and oftentimes, opposing players have not gotten off the field or court by the time the hopped-up students reach them. But the 2024 season has brought some noteworthy dustups between visiting players and fans who have intruded on their workspace. Iowa star Caitlin Clark, the most electric player in college basketball, went down in a heap after she came into contact with a Ohio State student after a game in January. Clark wasn’t injured but Duke star Kyle Filipowski may have been when a Wake Forest student ran into him after the Demon Deacons’ upset of the Blue Devils last weekend. (Duke sent conflicting signals about Filipowski’s status and he was back in the lineup on Wednesday night.) And on Tuesday, fans at Texas Tech threw bottles on to the court during a game against Texas – not a court-storming, but another notable insistence of a fan-led incursion onto the court.

Related: Duke’s Kyle Filipowski hurt by fan after Wake Forest’s court-storming upset

So this is just a matter of two unfortunate collisions? Aren’t there tons of these events? There are, but the Clark and Filipowski incidents haven’t happened in a vacuum. Last fall, a Mississippi student ran up on a Louisiana State football player and, unsurprisingly, found himself knocked to the ground. A few seasons ago, an Alabama football player pushed a woman who had joined a crowd on the field after the Crimson Tide lost a game at Tennessee. The widespread cellphone footage of these events has raised their profile and had more and more people wondering when something truly grim might happen.

Has anything really bad happened to this point? Thankfully America hasn’t had a disaster on the scale of stadium tragedies in other countries, but a number of people have suffered serious injury in the course of a storming. In 2004, a high school basketball star suffered a stroke and a torn carotid artery when fans rushed the court after he ended the game with a slam dunk. The incident left him paralyzed on his right side. The college game has seen several near misses that could have resulted in serious injury, and at least one person has broken a leg while fans rushed the court around them.

If all of that is public record, why do schools allow court-storming at all? Ostensibly, they allow it because nobody wants to be the bad cop who extinguishes a beloved tradition. Many conferences have nominal fine structures that do not even seem designed to stop a storming, but to give a slap on the wrist to schools that allow it to happen. The Atlantic Coast Conference, including Duke and Wake Forest, does not impose a monetary penalty, though that seems likely to change after the Filipowski incident.

Clearly, half measures don’t work. What might curtail these situations? Everyone has a different idea. Few would suggest penning fans into their sections, which can leave people trapped and contribute to crises like the tragedy at Hillsborough. The athletics director at Alabama has proposed that the home team forfeit a game when fans storm the court. That would be draconian, sure, but would stop or drastically cut back on fans rushing the playing surface. A more moderate idea is to take away a home game from teams the following season. And then there is the concept of a carrot rather than a stick: Offer students freebies, like food or merchandise, if they can only keep themselves off the court.

So college sports decision-makers need to collaborate and reach an equitable agreement that satisfies everybody. Fat chance of that, of course. So in the meantime, safety measures will fall to the teams themselves and individual host sites. If a team like Duke is about to lose a road game, it should take every possible step to get its players off the court even before the final buzzer. Of course, that’s not much of a permanent solution. The best hope may be for arenas to have phalanxes of event staff forming a human wall to slow down a storming. Even a few seconds’ delay could alleviate the chances of close encounters between drunk fans and visiting players. But danger will follow wherever there are crushes of people running toward each other in an emotional environment.

If court storming goes away, will college sports be losing a great tradition? Yes. The thrill of celebrating at midcourt or midfield after an enormous victory is one of the defining memories of university for countless students. It helps make college sports distinct from professional games and provides a beautiful visual that fills alumni with pride when they see pictures from afar.

Does that mean everything is fine? No. On the current course, something very bad is eventually going to happen. Policies can change now or change then.