UPPER DARBY — By tip-off time Saturday afternoon, 26 people, many of them adults, including two uniformed security guards, did their best to populate the stands adorned with banners for “Upper Darby students.”
Behind the Conestoga bench sat a contingent of parents and the remnants of the JV team. Members of Upper Darby’s family and friends occupied a section behind the Royals' bench. All told, a little more than 100 fans were in the Upper Darby gym for the Central League contest.
It was, by all appearances, an ordinary boys basketball game, even if it followed a very unusual Friday.
The first event hosted under Upper Darby School District's new game attendance policy – which was announced Friday as making Upper Darby games “no longer open to the general public,” then substantially clarified late Saturday in light of a flood of media attention – didn’t seem much different from many others in the past.
It certainly underwhelmed compared to the controversy stirred up a day earlier, and most importantly, it was markedly different from the Royals’ last home game, a Dec. 17 visit from Haverford marred by a melee that interrupted the game, injured security personnel, led to arrests and inspired the new policy in the first place.
It perhaps helped that the Royals handled Conestoga, 51-33. Or that it was an afternoon tipoff around a holiday break, less an event than games on Thursday or Friday nights.
The increased security presence and new admission procedures were a generally understated aspect of the routine.
“I really didn’t think about it much,” Upper Darby junior point guard CJ Dabbs said. “As long as we’re winning as a team, that’s all it is. If you can come, you can come. If you can’t, you can’t.”
The new policy, applicable for all gym events, i.e. wrestling and boys and girls basketball games, limits fan attendance to students with school-issued IDs. According to Athletic Director Frank Nunan, scanning IDs will root out students not in good disciplinary standing or those that have been expelled or suspended. It also limits high-school aged students from Upper Darby who don’t attend the school.
The policy requires both Upper Darby and visiting teams “to submit a list of invited parents and family members who will then be able to buy a ticket at the gate,” while students from the opposing school can enter with photo IDs. The visiting team also must have an administrator oversee that process, and seating areas are designated for each school.
While the initial disclosure of the rules was muddled, they were clarified after the game, which clearly enumerated sections on students and non-students, the latter falling under the pre-approved spectator list. Built into the procedures in the Saturday news release was the ability to admit spectators not on the pre-approved list at the discretion of Upper Darby personnel.
“I understand that there is much upset and frustration on social media about our decision to re-evaluate our procedures and admittance process for winter sports,” Upper Darby superintendent Dr. Daniel P. McGarry said in the amended statement. “The December 17th incident was embarrassing, and it is certainly not something we want to represent our school district or community. I called the Superintendent of the other school District and apologized for the incident. Our plan is to provide a safe, secure, and positive atmosphere. Members of the public can certainly attend our sporting events, but we have a new process for students and non-students.”
The kinks that needed to be worked out were clear to some after Friday’s attention-grabbing declaration, which in retrospect appears to have greatly overstated it.
“It was a little disturbing in a way because I felt like it’s going to prevent kids and people coming to see the kids perform,” said Shareef Jones Sr., whose son Shareef Jr. is a starting guard for the Royals (and scored 19 points Saturday). “I think the more the crowd, the better the team does. I also think that me personally, instead of banning it to the public, they should’ve got more security.”
In practice, Saturday’s implementation was more aligned with the rectified policy than Friday’s draconian ban. Nunan said the rule doesn’t limit Upper Darby’s outreach to youth groups in the community, who can attend (with adult supervision). It doesn’t limit holders of athletic passes generated for coaches at other schools. Nunan heard from veterans’ groups in the area, who can still use their IDs to enter, and the oversight role of administrators is a built-in check between safety and community atmosphere.
“We’re going to set parameters of what they can do in as far as getting in,” Nunan said, prior to the release of the updated guidelines Saturday night. “We don’t want to stop anybody from coming. It’s really just getting the safety piece together, and as we move forward with this, that’s the main concern.”
The Dec. 17 brawl didn’t involve players on either team, though it did spill onto the court and require a lengthy delay as the teams retreated to the locker room while order was restored. Upper Darby ended up with a 47-42 win and hadn’t played at home since. The intrusion into a space that coaches like Bob Miller, who’s been at the school 32 years, work hard to insulate as a safe space, was “a shock.” Miller said the team was able to move on from it, in part because none of his guys were involved.
“You just move on, focus on the game,” Dabbs said. “We can’t let stuff like that affect us during the season. We’ve got to keep our heads focused.”
Miller has spent decades as a teacher and advocate, so he understands the concern for safety. And he’s alarmed at the portrait that such incidents paint to outsiders.
“I’ve coached a lot of great kids, not just great basketball players,” Miller said. “And I teach a lot of great kids. What’s disappointing about that incident that night is there’s so many good kids here that people only tend to focus on something you hear that’s bad. But there’s so many good kids here – I can’t even begin to describe it. This is a diamond in the rough, and it has been for years. And it won’t be looked at like that after incidents like that.”