Wisconsin high school athletics association tells students to refrain from ‘air ball,’ ‘scoreboard’ chants

The fan-favorite chant, “Air ball!” — used when an opponent misses the hoop in basketball — is among the list of “unsportsmanlike” chants frowned upon by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletics Association.

Other discouraged chants include: “You can’t do that,” “Fun-da-mentals,” “There’s a net there,” “We can’t hear you,” and “Scoreboard.”

None of these chants contain expletives, but are being considered unsportsmanlike conduct by the WIAA, in accordance with the Sportsmanship Reference Guide. In a December email to school leaders throughout the state, the association called for student groups, administrators and event managers to take “immediate steps to correct this unsporting behavior.”

The WIAA regulation on taunting chants was thrust into the limelight this month when a student-athlete tweeted her disdain for the rule and was disciplined by Hilbert High School. April Gehl’s three-word post, “EAT SHIT WIAA,” paired with a picture of the first email, landed her a five-game suspension. Her tweet has since been shared about 1,300 times.

Gehl was suspended because she violated the school’s conduct code, the Hilbert High School athletic director told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The school policy includes a section on inappropriate language. She did not decide to pursue any legal action against the school or appeal the decision, her parents told USA Today.

The guidelines for game chants are not new, but are now being more actively discouraged, according to a second email sent by WIAA spokesman Todd Clark. The jeers are not explicitly banned, and Clark told the Star Tribune that “at most,” school officials could “suggest” students stop those chants at the games.

“To be clear,” the second email said, “there has been no new directives, no new rules, no new mandates, no new enforcement expectations associated with the email.”

Since Gehl’s suspension, many news organizations, sports media outlets and fans have communicated their opposition to the regulation by mocking its nature as coddling and overprotective. In support of the students, a Change.org peition has garnered more than 3,000 signatures calling for the WIAA to lift the guidelines against these chants.

The petition asks the WIAA to reconsider its choice of limiting student section cheers at sporting events. It claims student sections “provide energy and an electric atmosphere” to sporting events, but can only do so if students have the ability to cheer freely.

The association’s executive director Dave Anderson said the email was just a reminder of a longstanding sportsmanship policy, not a ban on certain cheers or a “crackdown of enthusiasm.”

The 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision Bethel Area School District v. Fraser decided that schools can regulate speech that occurs on campus if it is vulgar, lewd or plainly offensive. The Court ruled that schools do not violate the rights of students by disciplining them for these types of speech if it is disruptive to the fundamental values of public school education.

While most of the chants the WIAA seeks to ban don’t fall under the category of vulgar, lewd or plainly offensive, a civil rights attorney told the Star Tribune that as long as athletic officials only set this regulation as an “aspirational goal” without disciplining students, it won’t infringe upon the students’ legally protected rights.

The courts have been divided on whether school officials have the authority to regulate off-campus online speech, such as Gehl’s tweet. There is currently a petition pending for the Supreme Court to review the issue of students’ off-campus speech on social media and to decide if existing standards can be applied.