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Thursday, May 5, 2005
Incident with Nebraska player prompts review

Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The University of Oklahoma has begun re-examining its gameday operations at all sporting events to ensure the safety of fans and players, athletic director Joe Castiglione said Thursday.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Castiglione said the school would restrict the on-field presence of a student spirit group that had a member injured last season in a pregame collision with a Nebraska player. Castiglione said the RUF/NEKS would be prohibited from entering Owen Field more than 20 minutes prior to the start of a game so they would not be present when the teams are engaged in pregame drills.

The change is part of a continuing re-evaluation of gameday policies that the university conducts from time to time, Castiglione said. The focus of the investigation is widespread, Castiglione said, and does not concentrate on the incident, which led to a recent criminal trial. Incidents between fans and players at Major League Baseball and National Basketball Association games also demonstrate problems event managers have to consider, he said.

The athletic director said university officials would weigh different options for how to best create a desirable gameday atmosphere.

"That might be everything from stronger controls to access to positioning on or near the playing area," Castiglione said. "For us, it's been a bigger picture view than just looking at this one incident and reacting only to the incident itself."

Adam Merritt, a 19-year-old member of the Oklahoma RUF/NEKS spirit club, suffered two broken teeth when a Nebraska football player collided with him prior to the Cornhuskers' game against the Sooners on Nov. 13. Former Nebraska offensive lineman Darren DeLone was acquitted on a felony charge of aggravated assault and battery on Wednesday.

Beyond the limit placed on the RUF/NEKS, other changes have not yet been determined, but the evaluation is in its "final stages," he said.

According to testimony from a RUF/NEK in DeLone's trial, the collision occurred after members of the spirit group had been trash-talking with Cornhuskers' players. Castiglione said the RUF/NEKS are present on the field to escort the Sooner Schooner mascot and such "inappropriate behavior is not in any way one of their functions."

"We haven't ever heard of anybody bringing forth a complaint of a similar type of verbal engagement or we would have taken action," Castiglione said. "This unfortunately led to a bigger problem.

"The idea that an exchange occurred is troublesome and not acceptable in the rules we currently have in place."

Castiglione said he had not considered any rule changes involving the ceremonial shotguns RUF/NEKS are allowed to carry and fire during football games. The shotguns, which do not carry live ammunition but produce noise and smoke, became an issue at the trial after Nebraska players complained the guns were intended to impair their vision and hearing.

Castiglione said there would surely be differing opinions on the shotguns.

"There may be some that think it's justifiable and there may be some that would like to see some modification," he said. "There is something to say for the respect of traditions that are not adversely impacting the masses. ...

"We understand that there are some traditions that people have taken issue with over the years and to some degree, those traditions were terminated."

Castiglione said the school has had a positive relationship with the student spirit group, which he compared to a fraternity without a house.

"They have been very supportive, compliant and have shown some responsibility," Castiglione said. "In this case, a very small number engaged in behavior that was not acceptable. Those individuals will be suspended and will not be invited back."

Although the RUF/NEKS have drawn the ire of Nebraska's athletic department and added attention because of the trial, Castiglione said the evaluation would address any sporting venue where spectators or spirit groups were located near the playing surface -- including basketball and baseball games.

Among the concerns, Castiglione said, are situations when fans rush onto a basketball court or football field after a surprising victory or yell insults at opposing players in any sport. Castiglione said administrators at any university are preparing to deal with similar problems.

"We've got to continue to educate and remind and uphold standards of decorum and behavior and respect at the same time we're trying to create a great deal of spirit for our teams and try to add to the pageantry and atmosphere that we all love to celebrate within intercollegiate athletics," he said.