Aaron Rodgers — the quarterback whose "Hail Mary" pass sent his Green Bay Packers into overtime against the Arizona Cardinals Saturday night, and yet was ultimately deprived a trip to the NFC Championship — is coming out in defense of high school athletes and fans who say they are being censored for chanting at games. The line Rodgers says he draws is when chants target a player’s sexuality or racial ethnicity.
“I don’t agree with any type of racist or homophobic language, any of that type of stuff from the crowd to the people on the field. But ‘scoreboard’ and ‘air ball’ and ‘fundamentals,’ which is a great chant?” he told ESPN’s Jason Wilde in a locker room interview, and then for effect, chanted, “fun-da-men-tals” and clapped along.
“I led the chants when I wasn’t playing, and we said a lot worse stuff than that,” Rodgers told Wilde as he shook his head, and went on to explain his thinking:
“I think we’re, as a society, dying a little bit each day if we’re not only dumbing down our masses but we’re also limiting the things that we can say. ‘Air ball’ and ‘scoreboard,’ from a chant standpoint, in 2001 when I was in the stands watching my high school basketball team, that’s like the ground floor of stuff we would say.
“Think about the fans at other stadiums we play at or at Lambeau Field. I don’t think that [high school competition] warrants censorship. What are we telling our kids, that freedom of speech doesn’t exist? And any type of negative comment, you’re going to get somebody in trouble for? I just don’t agree with that.”
Neither does espnW columnist and ESPN Radio co-host Sarah Spain. The lifelong Chicago sports fan and heptathlete when she attended Cornell University is one-third of the first ESPN radio show with three female hosts, “The Trifecta.” Spain blasted the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association for its decision in her column:
“As someone who often speaks out about actual meaningful issues, like trying to eliminate racist, sexist and homophobic slurs in sport, I'm offended that the WIAA is offended by chants like 'fundamentals.' Who the hell cares if someone's yelling 'fundamentals?' And who's yelling that, anyway, when far better cheers like 'You suck!' exist? Furthermore, those who drone on about how political correctness is making our country 'soft' have just been gift-wrapped a perfect example of needless meddling and coddling. Save the outrage for the stuff that matters, Wisconsin! You're not doing these kids any favors protecting them from the 'scoreboard' cheer.”
This controversy began with an email from the WIAA, first reported by the Post Crescent, about what the association called "a noticeable increase in the amount of chants by student sections directed at opponents and/or opponents' supporters that are clearly intended to taunt or disrespect."
The email provided what the WIAA called “specific examples of unsporting behavior:”
"You can't do that,"
"There's a net there,"
"We can't hear you,"
The "scoreboard" cheer
No reference was made in the email to specific chants about gender, sexuality or race.
But a firestorm erupted after Hilbert High School athlete April Gehl decided to tweet her opinion about the email:
EAT SHIT WIAA pic.twitter.com/hqH8TH3rgm
— April Gehl (@AprilGehl24) January 4, 2016
The honor student, three-sport star and one of the top scorers for the Wolves’ girls’ basketball team was suspended for five games during the current winter season.
Turns out the WIAA saw her tweet. According to her mother, Jill Gehl, the WIAA sent her school athletic director Stan Diedrich a screengrab of Gehl’s tweet, and didn't suggest course of action other than for her school to “please take care of it.”
“My mom asked to see the email and (Diedrich) showed it to her,” April told the Post Crescent. “Because it came directly from the WIAA, they felt they had to do something, and that’s why I got punished that way.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” Gehl told the newspaper. “I was like, ‘Really? For tweeting my opinion?’ I thought it was ridiculous.”
So did a lot of people as her suspension made international headlines and reaction poured-in. The WIAA told the newspaper, don't blame us.
"To be clear, there was no language in our correspondence with the school that stated to 'take care of this,'" WIAA director of communication Todd Clark told the paper. "That determination is for the member school to address. But these issues, like other sportsmanship issues brought to our attention, are shared with our members for their awareness."
Gehl and her parents are not appealing the suspension, and her mother told the Post Crescent, “Sure, what she said wasn’t the right words and wasn’t the best thing to do… But we just have to deal with the consequences.”
That’s what Rodgers is doing, now that his season is over: dealing with the consequences of a bad coin toss and his defense’s collapse in overtime. He confessed to ESPN, if rules like those in Wisconsin had been enforced when he was attending Pleasant Valley High School in Chico, California, he’d have been in trouble, too.
As for his remarks denouncing homophobic chants, Outsports hailed Rodgers for making what it called “a great step forward” from the past, when the quarterback publicly distanced himself from speculation about his sexuality.
“[Rodgers is] acknowledging the damage that can be done to young gay kids by hearing so many people chant epithets and other anti-gay language,” wrote Cyd Zeigler.
Of course, homophobic chants are still an issue beyond Wisconsin at sporting events. As NewNowNext reported, the world soccer organization FIFA fined five Latin American countries last week, where the home team fans consistently shouted antigay chants.