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‘Let’s be leaders’: Whitman condemns fan behavior in open letter

“We must be better. And we will be.”

NCAA Basketball: No.Carolina A&T at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

After a pair of alleged incidents involving fan behavior during the final months of the 2021-22 basketball season, Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman opened up Thursday afternoon and said such behavior “will not be tolerated.”

In the letter, Whitman referenced an incident involving fans making targeted remarks at Ohio State’s EJ Liddell and Iowa’s Kris Murray.

“On behalf of our university and all of us directly connected to our athletic program, to those who have been the targets of such vile rhetoric, I offer my most heartfelt apology,” Whitman wrote. “As an alumnus, letterwinner, and now the athletic director, I am disappointed and embarrassed by our behavior. We must be better. And we will be.”

Whitman went on to say he understands that part of having a home-field advantage in college sports is the ability to make the opponent “uncomfortable,” but fans should not “make it hurt.”

“Good sportsmanship requires it. Human decency and mutual respect define it,” he said. “And this season, some number of Fighting Illini fans regularly crossed it. We become what we are willing to tolerate. And we cannot tolerate this.”

Whitman said changes could be made ahead of the fall season for football and basketball, including new sanctions or loss of privileges for failure to conduct oneself in a manner “befitting this university and fan base.”

You can read Whitman’s letter in its entirety below.

Dear Fighting Illini:

During this championship season, the atmosphere at State Farm Center was electric. Through your passion and enthusiasm, we created one of the great home court environments in all of college basketball. You, our fans, played a critical role in our team’s run to the Big Ten title! Congratulations, and thank you!

Unfortunately, however, at various games throughout this season, we witnessed troubling behavior from some of our fans that cast an unnecessary, ugly shadow on an otherwise memorable season. Some fans crossed the line with our opponents, choosing to deliver targeted, hateful, insensitive comments at opposing student-athletes and coaches. This pattern of unacceptable conduct culminated in recent weeks with particularly harsh remarks directed at star players for both Ohio State (link here) and Iowa (link here). On behalf of our university and all of us directly connected to our athletic program, to those who have been the targets of such vile rhetoric, I offer my most heartfelt apology. As an alumnus, letterwinner, and now the athletic director, I am disappointed and embarrassed by our behavior. We must be better. And we will be.

For those of us who have been fortunate enough to step into the arena at this level, we know that when the lights turn on, we cross from known to unknown, from control to chaos, from secure to unstable. Student-athletes and coaches expect to be heckled by opposing fans. This is a tradition of sport and is something we celebrate in State Farm Center and Memorial Stadium: the opportunity to create an advantage in your home venue based, in part, on how uncomfortable the home team’s fans can make an opponent. As a rule, make it hard, but don’t make it hurt. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that’s incredibly important. As with many things in life, there is always a line. Good sportsmanship requires it. Human decency and mutual respect define it. And this season, some number of Fighting Illini fans regularly crossed it. We become what we are willing to tolerate. And we cannot tolerate this.

Just last week, the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics at the University of Illinois launched its “I Matter” campaign: an effort to raise awareness around hostility, abuse, and bullying directed at staff and student-athletes. Although this effort is targeted mostly at online interactions, it goes without saying that such behavior, if not acceptable in a virtual space, is even less appropriate in person. Notably, the focal point of the campaign is all participants in our competitions – not just those who have chosen to wear the Orange and Blue, but our opponents as well.

With our home basketball schedule now concluded, it will be many months before we have occasion to gather again in large numbers for Fighting Illini football and basketball games. As the fall draws near, we will announce new policies related to good sportsmanship, including potential sanctions and loss of privileges for failure to conduct oneself in a manner that is befitting this university and fan base. In the meantime, there is much basketball left to be played, and some (many!) of you might be headed to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Tournament. If you are, please conduct yourself in a manner that represents with class and respect all of us connected to the University of Illinois.

Again, to our opponents, I offer my sincere apology. When you come to Champaign, you will be surrounded by some of the most passionate, loud, obnoxious fans you have ever experienced, and I promise you will count the minutes until you are allowed to return to the solace of the locker room. But from today forward, even in the face of such intense competitive pressure, our fans will respect the work you have done to step into the arena, and if they can be identified as having crossed the line of proper decorum and good sportsmanship, we will take immediate action to remedy the situation.

Let’s be leaders, Illini.

I-L-L!

Josh