Fighting Fan Violence : Some NFL Teams Are Limiting Beer Sales, Training Employees to Identify Rowdies and Giving Designated Drivers Free Soft Drinks to Try to Control Crowds
The New England Patriots were at the top of their game in the early 1980s when, on a Monday night at Foxboro Stadium, some of the fans in a capacity crowd of 60,311 got out of hand.
Picking one fight after another, they fought in the stands, and then in the parking lots afterward, and even on the roads home.
Foxboro was outraged. It was the last straw in a series of incidents that soured government officials on Monday night games. Early the next morning, the town’s councilmen, known as selectmen in that part of the country, took action. They called the NFL in New York and said, “Never again. No more Monday night games.”
That was nine years ago. And the NFL has since complied, ending crowd violence on Mondays in New England.
But not on Sundays. Rowdy fan behavior is still a fact of life there and everywhere else that pro games are played.
The rowdies are always a small fraction of the thousands at any stadium, but they always seem to be there.
When it snowed in Pennsylvania last December, for example, Philadelphia Eagle fans threw snowballs at the visiting players and coaches, hitting many in the face as they stood on the sideline at Veterans Stadium.
Some fans also threw snowballs and iceballs at each other, blackening a few eyes, and forcing the Eagles to ban beer sales at their last two games last winter, including the playoff game against the Rams.
In New Jersey several years earlier, New York Jet fans built a magnificent bonfire in a crowded seating section of Giants Stadium, burning scores of game programs and dozens of hats and caps.
“That was a busy night for the cops,” George Young, general manager of the Giants, recalled the other day. “First they put out the fire, and then the drunks.”
The truth is that the incidents of recent Sundays at Raider games at the Coliseum have been no more than part of a national pattern: Some football fans love to fight.
More precisely, a minute percentage will pick a fight at the drop of a beer cup.
Always have and, no doubt, always will.
Is it getting worse, and are team and stadium officials doing anything about it?
Is there a link to alcohol, and if so, should beer sales be stopped?
Within the last few days, those and other related questions were put to a number of U.S. stadium managers and experts in other fields.
Their consensus observations:
--Crowd behavior can be effectively controlled without the prohibition of beer.
--In general, it is being controlled. Fan violence isn’t on the rise.
--Most NFL teams, 21 of the 28, discontinue beer sales in the third or fourth quarter. Seventeen teams prohibit beer sales by vendors in the seating sections.
--Most Eastern teams ban beer on Monday nights, when the games start at 9 p.m.--five hours after the cocktail hour begins at, say, Foxboro, where beer was served all evening at the Patriots’ last Monday night game in 1981.
--Some stadiums, such as Chicago’s Soldier Field, offer free soft drinks to the designated drivers in each carload.
--Fan misconduct has dropped appreciably in the stadiums where all employees, starting with parking lot attendants, are trained to identify potential drunks and rowdies.
--Policies leading to widespread public awareness and education are also increasingly effective.
--Stadium problems usually begin at pregame tailgate parties, where alcohol consumption is difficult or impossible to police.
--Tailgate consumption increases considerably where stadium beer sales are forbidden.
--Alcohol prohibition at football games means that the rights of the overwhelming majority of good citizens are tampered with in the effort to control the belligerent minority.
--The question is whether there is an overriding necessity to fight a handful of troublemakers by discriminating against the thousands whose traditional game-day lunch has been the same for years of Sundays: a hot dog and a beer.
--When 50,000 people congregate in one area, no amount of security can prevent all incidents.
“You don’t even need 50,000,” Jim Dugan, manager of Chicago’s Soldier Field, said. “You can have a bloody fight at a mall, or on the sidewalk in front of Nordstrom.”
And, said Michael Rowe, manager of Giants Stadium at East Rutherford, N.J., “A fight can boil up in seconds. That’s the tough thing about stadium security. Trouble happens so fast.
“If you have 10 security guards in front of section A when a fight starts in section B, none of them can get there in time to keep a guy from getting knocked unconscious--if the (assailant) is determined enough.”
Joining Young, Dugan and Rowe in discussing the problem recently were Brian O’Donovan, manager of Foxboro Stadium; Greg Asbury, manager of the Rose Bowl; Norman Braman, owner of the Eagles; Jerry Sachs, vice president of the Washington Bullets of the NBA, and other crowd-control experts in San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego, New York and Washington.
MORE OR LESS?
At the start of a new decade of pro football, the fan-violence problem apparently isn’t getting worse. Nor is it getting much better, most observers agree.
“There are more (rowdies) today, but there’s also better security,” Giant General Manager Young said. “So I’d say it’s a standoff, about the same as it’s been since the ‘40s, when I started going to pro games.”
A Raider season-ticket holder, Don Bohana, said: “There are always a few fights. Fans have been fighting at the Coliseum ever since my first (Ram) game there, when I went with my dad in the days of Dan Towler and Tank Younger. It’s no worse now--except for the one incident (Sept. 23) when a guy was blind-sided, hit from behind, knocked out. You handle that not by banning beer but by throwing the book at criminals who make unprovoked attacks.”
At the Rose Bowl, which has stopped selling beer at UCLA games this season, Asbury disagrees with the majority on fan misconduct.
“Our impression is that it’s generally on the rise (nationally) except in stadiums where beer is (prohibited),” Asbury said. “We’ve been surprised to find that fights and arguments have dropped to almost nothing here this season.”
Said UCLA season-ticket holder Jackie Leebody: “It’s just more fun to sit at a game where nobody is sloshing beer around.”
USC’s leaders are also on the side of prohibition. But they have found that a beer ban is easier to arrange in Pasadena, where there’s a demand for it, than Los Angeles, where there isn’t.
Said USC Athletic Director Mike McGee: “We haven’t had any serious problems in the four years since (Coliseum beer sales) were restricted to two cups, and prohibited entirely in the fourth quarter.”
Joe Browne, the NFL’s vice president of communications and development, said: “The thing that’s changed in the last year or two is that there’s more awareness of the (fan-misconduct) problem in all arenas and stadiums by all pro sports. So things are improving. There are fewer (fights). One reason it might not seem (so) is that people are more inclined to report an incident now. There are more statistics.”
At Chicago, Soldier Field Manager Dugan said: “We had 11 evictions at our last game but not a single arrest during the (Bear-Minnesota) game. Last year, we often had four or five arrests. I think there’s improvement.”
Said Jack Teele, assistant to the president of the San Diego Chargers, who for many years was assistant to the president of the Rams: “Our crowds are better behaved than the Ram crowds I used to see. Of course, we always have a few fights when the Raiders come to town.”
At Foxboro, Stadium Manager O’Donovan is concerned that a downturn in the economy will soon adversely affect crowd behavior.
“When times are bad, you get more casual fans,” he said. “It’s like the preseason, when you also get a different kind of fan--and more problems--when season-ticket holders are on vacation.
“Casual fans are less fanatic about football, and more interested in making it Party City for a day. They’re more boisterous, and there are more fights. Unemployment and job insecurity contribute to unruly behavior. People escaping reality and all that. I’m pulling for a boom in the economy.”
WHO AND WHY?
Football fan fighting today is more common than, for instance, movie-theater brawling for several good reasons.
“At a football game, most spectators are passionately attached to their team,” Giants Stadium Manager Rowe said. “The depth of their attachment is often underrated. And if they like one team, they definitely don’t like the other team. They especially don’t like the other team’s fans. That’s an explosive mix. It doesn’t take much to set them off.”
Raider fan Bohana said: “Taunting is too strong a word. They aren’t taunting you when they wear a Bronco hat or T-shirt. The unfortunate guy who got slugged in the Coliseum wasn’t taunting anybody.
“He was just walking around in a Pittsburgh T-shirt, having fun, smiling and waving happily.”
Unfortunately, at a 1990 game, that can be explosive.
“The problem for stadium management is that the problem begins before the fans get inside,” Dugan said at Soldier Field. “They get loaded at tailgate parties. And at night games, they come here directly from a bar.”
Said O’Donovan: “Industry-wide, 80% of our trouble is related to tailgating. It wouldn’t help much to get rid of beer because the guy who walks in sober causes almost no problems even after two or three beers.”
It’s a different world today. Although the Raiders had a black-hat reputation in Oakland a dozen years ago, their fans weren’t as tough as Los Angeles fans.
“I was on the board of directors in those days,” said George Vukasin, president of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. “And fan control was never an issue when the Raiders were in Oakland.”
Vukasin remembers that Raider fans weren’t even ejected when caught smoking marijuana under the stands at halftime.
“The police (just) talked to them,” he said.
The change since then in fan behavior is, in the view of Rowe and other stadium managers, a natural result of the changes in American social behavior since the early 1970s.
“Fifteen years ago, when football fans had to go to the bathroom, they went to the bathroom,” Rowe said at Giants Stadium. “Today, they don’t care where they go.
“It used to be that a football fan got mad when another fan said something unkind about his date--but it wasn’t worth fighting about. You just exchanged a few angry words. Today, a mild insult can start a real brawl.
“Eight, 10, 15 years ago, if you were wearing a Raider cap, a ruffian was a guy who might try to knock it off. Today, he tries to knock your head off.
“Or he might ask you for a match, and set your hat on fire. Or he might use it for a bathroom.
“People don’t have much regard for other people’s property anymore in any public place, including the stadium.
“They don’t stay in the closet, either, anymore. It used to be that if you were a man of a few vices, or if you had a deviant lifestyle, you left it home when you went to the game. You were just out for a diversion.
“I’d say that 95% or more of the people are still out for a diversion--but that other group, they bring their negative lifestyle with them.”
In short, it’s a tougher world.
And, said Rowe: "(To) survive, stadium security people have had to get tougher, too, a lot tougher. I think the stadiums are keeping the lid on (troublemakers) as tight as ever, probably tighter, but they couldn’t do it if they weren’t twice as tough and demanding as they once were.”
Facing repeated instances of rowdy fan behavior around the country, how are the pro clubs and the stadium people battling it?
At Philadelphia last winter, when Eagle fans wouldn’t stop throwing snowballs, club owner Norman Braman intervened.
“The problem was obviously alcohol-related, so we persuaded the city council to suspend the sale of beer,” he said. “We were a dry stadium in our last (two games).
“This year (the Eagles) wanted to make the (beer ban) permanent. But it’s a city stadium, and they showed me that it would be an economic hardship on the concessionaire.
“Without beer, the concession people would lose hundreds of thousands of dollars. You also have to consider that a (ban) would deprive many people in the law-abiding majority.
“So we compromised. We allow beer now under certain very restricted circumstances. And I must say that the results have surprised me. The incidence of (misconduct) at our stadium has dropped dramatically.”
Braman attributes the improvement to six changes: smaller and fewer beers per person, no beer in the second half, rigid inspections at the entrance gates, strict policing in the tailgate areas, vigorous prosecution of offenders, and “the installation of numerous Porto-Toilets.”
Said Mimi Box, Eagle vice president: “We’ve only had one physical altercation in the (stands) in three games. That’s a major improvement--although we’re still ejecting (offenders) for minor things like pot smoking and public urination.”
Beer restrictions similar to Philadelphia’s--including a two-beer limit--are also in place this season at most other NFL stadiums, although, at Foxboro, there are three exceptions, Manager O’Donovan, said.
“We think the right time to cut beer sales is 15 minutes into the second half,” he said.
“We also evict (those) who try to smuggle alcohol in. Most stadiums just confiscate it. We evict.
“Our person-to-person program has also been successful. We hold the season-ticket holder personally responsible for any problem caused by the individuals in his seats, whether he was at the game or not.
“After the game, we contact the (offending) ticket holder personally during the week. We also sit down next to him at the next game, and let him know that such behavior won’t be tolerated. If the (misconduct) is repeated, you can lose your tickets.”
At San Francisco, corresponding security policies have been initiated at Candlestick Park, Murlan Fowell, a 49er executive, said.
“We send all season-ticket applicants a flyer informing them that they’re responsible for the actions of anyone in their seat,” Fowell said. “We (mean) intoxication, abusive or foul language, and things like (fighting).
“One (incident) puts their season tickets in jeopardy. It makes them more guarded in who they sell their tickets to.”
The 49ers have had only one serious altercation in two years.
“That was the day that (Bear Coach) Mike Ditka hit a fan with his bubble gum,” Fowell said.
The problems are a little different at Washington’s RFK Stadium, Manager Jim Dalrymple said.
“We’ve sold out every game for 27 years, so a Redskin crowd is somewhat older and more mature,” he said. “And the problem sections are easy to (identify) here. They’re the visitors’ side and the end zone. We didn’t have one incident of fan violence last season.”
Three kinds of security forces are used at most NFL stadiums, including his, said Dalrymple, who brings in 30 or 40 city police, 45 uniformed security guards, and 125 security helpers known in most places as yellow jackets.
At East Rutherford, N.J., Rowe was one of many stadium managers who declined to place a number on the troops.
“The insurance adjusters would like to know that,” he said. “Basically, in our three-level stadium, we could put a guard in every section in every tier, if necessary.
“But we use them mostly to patrol the aisles. Nothing is more conducive to obeying the law than the sight of a policeman.
“In the stadium numbers game, no amount of security is (enough). They always outnumber you. Five hundred is a lot of cops--but that (means) that there are 70,000 of them and 500 of you.”
In Chicago, Dugan has concluded that the most effective weapons against rowdy behavior at Soldier Field are public awareness and education.
“When they understand that eviction is certain, there are fewer incidents,” Dugan said.
The NFL, which agrees, began a nationwide public service campaign last December with 60-second television commercials featuring Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly and former Ram safety Nolan Cromwell.
This year most of the commercials are being inserted during Sunday games, NFL Vice President Browne said.
“The theme of the announcements is ‘Don’t Rock the Boat,’ which is a takeoff on a song in ‘Guys and Dolls,’ ” Browne said. “The song and the commercial are (aimed at) rudeness, drinking, swearing.”
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said: “The campaign is aimed at the (stadium) minority who make things uncomfortable for other spectators.”
Any campaign against fan misconduct is most successful when each stadium employee is, in effect, a security guard, in the opinion of Jerry Sachs, the Washington Bullets’ executive.
“That’s what works best,” he said. “It’s been shown that there is very little (rowdiness) when everyone in the stadium or arena is involved in (prevention)--the parking lot attendant, ticket taker, usher, vendor, top management, everybody.
“The idea is to train everybody to look for (drunks, bottles and fights), and to show everybody how to promptly call in (security personnel).”
Said Giant executive Young: “The walkie-talkie is our equalizer.”
Several years ago, Sachs, in cooperation with highway-safety groups, founded the national organization known as TEAM (techniques for effective alcohol management).
Since then, TEAM has signed up most NBA, NHL and major league baseball clubs, and is working on the NFL.
Cynthia Emmets, the TEAM coordinator in Los Angeles, said: “Anticipation is the key to preventing (disturbances).”
At Giants Stadium, Manager Rowe readily agrees.
“In the old days, we used to hope that no problems would happen,” he said. “Today, we’re looking for problems to happen.”
He isn’t often disappointed.
Times staff writers Norma Kaufman in San Francisco, Jennifer Toth in Washington and Don Patterson in San Diego contributed to this story.