Commentary

Nothing to fear at the ol' ballpark

Don't be alarmed by the recent incidents of fan violence. You're safe at the stadium.

Originally Published: August 25, 2011
By Roy S. Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

I'm not scared. And neither should you be.

Despite the tragedies involving attacks on fans that occurred at baseball and football stadiums in recent months, nothing scares me about going to a game these days.

Well, nothing except the price of my ticket.

Understandably, the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders are reacting aggressively to the senseless -- and yes, scary -- shooting of two people in the parking lot outside their preseason game at Candlestick Park last Saturday. The 49ers, looking for banned items, were already conducting light pat downs on fans entering the stadium, like many NFL teams do. But on Monday, the team announced new major security measures, including DUI checkpoints after every home game, halting the sale of alcohol at the start of the fourth quarter (if not earlier), additional lighting in the parking lots, not opening parking lots until four hours prior to game time and banning tailgating once the game begins.

That last one is a bit Draconian for my tastes. Some fans are so passionate about their team they prefer sharing the experience of "being there" by sitting in the parking lot with their grill and some brews to sitting at home. You gotta love that.

[+] EnlargeCleveland Browns Stadium
AP Photo/Amy SancettaFans in Cleveland for last weekend's Browns-Lions preseason game went through a security checkpoint on their way into the stadium. It's SOP at most sporting events now.

Yet given Saturday's madness, I understand the move. I just hope it's only temporary.

The team also said it will increase its scrutiny of fans entering the stadium, refusing entry to those who look "obviously" drunk. And it will hold season-ticket holders more accountable for selling their seats to people who turn out to be loud-mouth louts (although in this age of Internet ticket-broker sites and even digital exchanges through team websites, this likely will be difficult to enforce).

Oakland and San Francisco, cross-bay rivals, will also apparently end their annual preseason get-together and simply not play each other again unless the regular-season schedule calls for it. For that, the world just might be a better place.

The Los Angeles Dodgers also buckled down on security a few months ago after Bryan Stow, a Giants fan, was brutally beaten outside a game in Chavez Ravine.

After that incident, the team and local police stepped up their presence significantly (adding up to 80 officers patrolling the Dodger Stadium parking lots, according to reports). The team also added more lighting, closed-circuit cameras and license-plate readers in parking areas. (Things that should have been done ages ago, really.)

Gang tensions are being blamed in part in the Bay Area, according to initial reports. (Alas, few neighborhoods are immune to this sad reality in many cities, including the San Francisco area.) Dodgers owner Frank McCourt was widely criticized for going on the cheap with security -- among other aspects of the Dodgers' business. Some fans in Los Angeles openly complained about the deterioration of the game experience at one of baseball's most historic ballparks.

The adage your mom and dad repeated so often -- you get what you pay for -- might never be more appropriate than when it's applied to the game-day experience in sports.

But let's all take a deep breath.

The sports pages (print and digital) are abuzz with calls for the NFL to "do something" about fan violence. To bolster their argument, some outraged citizens are citing acts of fan violence that occurred several years ago. Others are lumping in incidents such as the occasional inebriated fan doing something gross -- like urinating in the bushes or between cars.

[+] EnlargeDodger Stadium security
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesIn the wake of the Bryan Stow incident in April, the police presence was increased at Dodger Stadium.

Yeah, that's ugly, but when 20,000 or more are gathered in the name of fill-in-the-blank team mania (and beer), well, it's gonna happen. And let's face it: Junior and his sister have probably seen much worse on television.

One California legislator says he wants to draft a bill that will elevate penalties for anyone found guilty of fighting at a sporting event -- essentially giving those transgressions hate-crime status relative to your ordinary, everyday assaults. Los Angeles Assemblyman Mike Gatto also said he would create a fund that would reward whistle-blowers who ID fight suspects. (The money would supposedly come from $50,000-per-year donations from each of the state's pro sports franchises. Uh-huh.)

Another critic even suggested breathalyzing all fans on their way out of the stadium, before they reach their cars.

Please.

Not only would that add hours to the retreat, but stadiums and arenas everywhere would become giant postgame sleep-overs!

So let's resist the tendency to go to DEFCON 1 (yes, that's the worse one) over Saturday's mayhem by the Bay.

The NFL cannot "do something" about these kinds of unfortunate incidents beyond what it already does. Remember, it instituted a Fan Code of Conduct three years ago that already includes the kind of common-sense moves that should protect the integrity of the game-day experience.

And frankly, things actually used to be a lot worse at games.

When my children were younger, it angered me when some drunk knucklehead shouted profanities at opposing teams and players. At the time, there wasn't much I could do about it but explain to my kids that, well, the guy is a knucklehead. But such behavior has been tempered in recent years by adding security throughout the stands and instituting zero-tolerance policies that empower security personnel to throw the drunken bums out if they don't tone it down.

Some stadiums have even created "family friendly" sections where neither alcohol nor abusive language or behavior is allowed at all.

Back in the Bay Area, fans at Raiders and Oakland A's games are given a number to which they can text the whereabouts of obnoxious fans. Great idea.

Bag Check
AP Photo/Ed AndrieskiFans don't get into Coors Field in Denver without a mandatory check of their bags.

I see more "greeters" and such, too, these days, starting in the parking lots prior to games, at least at Yankee Stadium and Citi Field in New York and in the other major cities I've been to in recent years.

So overall, fans shouldn't be any more concerned about their safety at the game than they are about their drive (or subway ride) to the game.

And I believe most fans feel the same way. Ultimately, the incidents in Los Angeles and the Bay Area will have absolutely zero long-term effect on attendance. Sure, some fans might forgo 49ers games for a week or two, but there will always be people ready to fill their seats.

Nationally, fans will not stay away in droves, either -- just as (and I hate to use this analogy since I am writing this while on an airplane) a plane or train tragedy does not prevent significant numbers of people from flying or riding the rails.

The bottom line is this: Fans should always be aware of their surroundings, just as they are, say, walking down Fifth Avenue on a crowded weekday or anywhere there are crowds.

Additionally, fans should not be afraid to police each other -- something that has also increased in recent years.

If you see a jerk, say something.

And don't be scared.

Roy S. Johnson is a veteran sports journalist and media consultant. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

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Roy S. Johnson

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