How to Make Stadiums Safer

This past weekend, we were offered a sobering reminder that sports, our oasis from the real world, are not immune to the darker aspects of our society. At the annual preseason rivalry game between the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders, two men were shot in the parking lot and a third man was found beaten to the point of unconsciousness in a restroom. These incidents come approximately five months after Brian Stow, a 42-year old San Francisco Giants fan, was beaten nearly to death at Dodger Stadium during an opening day match-up between the Giants and Dodgers.

While the extent of this violence is quite high and so far isolated, boorish behavior has unfortunately become a generally accepted negative externality of the sports spectating experience. I am not old enough to really know whether or not this has always been the case but there are a small percentage of fans who consume an excessive amount of alcohol before and during games, aggressively look for fights, and make the ballpark experience worse for those around them and sometimes completely unsuitable for children.

As mentioned in the opening, sports are our oasis from the real world. A vast majority of adults who consume alcohol before and during games are able to do so responsibly and without incident. Getting rid of alcohol entirely would not be a fair solution to these fans and would be a systemic shock to the whole sports infrastructure which sees teams generate money hand over fist from alcohol sales and sponsorships.

That being said, alcohol abuse at sporting events has entered into the realm of the freedom to/freedom from debate. One of the basic tenets of American society is that we have a greater degree of freedom to pursue happiness than almost anywhere else in the world. We have a democratic system which gives everyone an equal vote, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press amongst many more. Freedom to approaches its boundary, though, when actions affect innocent others. For example, we are not permitted to drive drunk because in addition to risking our own lives we could kill somebody else.

Unfortunately, the unconditional freedom for adults to consume mass amounts of alcohol has presented a danger and annoyance to fans who deserve freedom from these nuisances. As sports become increasingly vivid and comfortable to watch on television, leagues need to address this behavior immediately or its customers will stay home. In a USA Today poll (at 818 votes at time of this writing) asking whether recent violence will keep you from attending a sporting event, 38% said, “Yes. Live events no longer family fun,” 24% responded, “Yes. Watch game and be safe at home,” and 14% said, “No. But I wouldn’t bring children.” Just 24% responded that they don’t give the violence any thought.

The following are steps that sports leagues should consider mandating in order to limit violence and preserve the integrity of the gameday experience:

1. Establish a Legal Limit

Just as there is a legal limit in determining whether you are able to safely operate a motor vehicle, there should be a blood/alcohol level at which you are no longer allowed to be at a stadium or arena. This legal limit would be a bit higher than the driving limit of .08 at a level that researchers show to constitute excessive intoxication. I would imagine that most fan violence occurs at BAC levels that are above and beyond what responsible drinkers reach. If a fan is causing trouble and there is reason to suspect that he/she is above this limit, security should use a breathalyzer to determine if the level has been violated.

2. Ban Repeat Offenders

I would venture to say that this intolerable behavior is a habit for fans in most cases as opposed to a result of an isolated mistake. As we move further and further into an era where all information is stored digitally, it will only become easier to track troublemakers.

There should be a multi-tiered violations system (kind of like yellow and red cards in soccer) that extends across the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, and NCAA where fans can lose the privilege to either attend games at all or drink at them. This would ideally be implemented on some sort of strikes system, a framework of which is as follows:

  • Physical fight – 2 strikes (There would need to be some nuance here where someone who gets instigated and defends himself is blamed less than the aggressor. Usually when there is a fight, all the fans in the immediate area are not shy about saying if someone was blatantly right or blatantly in the wrong).
  • Physical fight where a victim ends up in serious condition – 5 strikes
  • Verbal abuse – 1 strike base, 2 strikes if it is deemed to be extreme
  • Running onto the field – 2 strikes
  • DUI returning from a game – 2 strikes
  • Over the stadium limit but without any incident – .5 strikes

Off the bat, I would say that after two strikes you should receive a one-year ban from consuming alcohol before or during sporting events. My alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, has a little bit of a framework for this. When a student gets kicked out of a game for an alcohol-related offense, he/she gets put into the show and blow program where the ticket is programmed to show that this is the case and its holder must be breathalyzed before the game. If underage, the student may not enter the game with any alcohol in his/her system and if 21 or above the student must blow under .08.

Three strikes would result in a one-year ban from attending any sporting event across the spectrum while five strikes would yield a lifelong ban. Analogizing this to a Bill Maher stand-up routine about airport security, all of this sounds very comprehensive and difficult to enforce until we remember how effective casinos are with their security. If cheaters and troublemakers can be systematically limited at casinos through the use of meticulous data and advanced technology, the major sports leagues which combine to generate approximately $100 trillion per year in revenue* should be able to do the same.

*Figure is slightly exaggerated

3. Consider Separating Rival Fans

A few years ago, when I was studying abroad in London, I attended an English Premiership League match between West Ham United and Fulham. I was stunned to see that there was a specific section in Fulham’s stadium for West Ham fans, almost mirroring a college football game except for the fact that fans in the rest of the stadium were not allowed to wear West Ham apparel or even cheer for the team. My friend James says that this is also the case at many football (the soccer kind) matches in Australia.

Of my three suggestions, this is actually the one I am least comfortable with implementing. I love supporting my teams on the road and try to make friends with fans of opposing teams sitting around me. I would hope that it would never reach a point in America where the threat of violence is so great that I am scared or segregated in rooting for my teams at other stadiums. That being said, if violence continues to escalate and the events recently become a trend instead of being exceptions, sports leagues may have to take drastic measures to prevent violence.

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One Response to How to Make Stadiums Safer

  1. Phil rockwell says:

    Ryan,

    Excellent writing!

    However, regarding the fans and alcohol, etc., believe you are falling prey to our society’s (especially politicians’) overreaction to basically isolated events. (Example: kid gets hurt on jungle jim, so close the playground/pool because we can’t ensure safety for every kid and can’t afford the insurance.)

    Americans, especially parents in regard to their children, want total safety, all the time. And, sadly, they seem willing to give up all their rights to ensure this, when, of course, this beloved “safety” can never be guaranteed. But, giving up your rights will be!

    Life has its risks and common sense and care can usually help a lot to keeping one “safe.”

    Just my thoughts.

    Keep up the good work.

    Phil

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