Every year, NFL owners, team officials and league representatives meet to discuss the state of the league at the annual NFL Spring Meeting. When asked about fan conduct at the meeting, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stated, “We look at the issue of our in-stadium experience as something that’s critically important. By making sure that fans feel safe, that they’re comfortable, and that they can enjoy the game without being interfered with. We want them to go home safely, and when they arrive home, feel good about what they just did that day.” Goodell made this statement before the 2008 NFL season.
By now, everyone has had a chance to digest the events that took place in and around Candlestick Park when the Oakland Raiders played the San Francisco 49ers for a preseason game on August 20. By the looks of what went down that day, it would appear as if Mr. Goodell has some catching up to do. The aftermath of this game has sent shockwaves around the sporting world and has prompted a rash of discussions on NFL stadium policies, alcohol consumption at sporting events, violence in society in general and tailgating.
“Stupid is as stupid does.” Police records indicate that a 24 year-old man wearing a “F***k the 49ers” t-shirt was shot four times in the stomach in the parking lot at Candlestick Park. Unfortunately for this gentleman, TLC’s “What not to Wear” must not have been televised that morning. Obviously, there is “dress for success” and then there is “dress to get shot.” By the end of that miserable day at Candlestick, two men ended up shot, seventy people were ejected from the stadium by police, dozens more were ejected by stadium security, ninety calls had been answered to provide emergency medical service and one person was savagely beaten unconscious in a stadium restroom. To put this violence in perspective, the NFL reportedly averages three arrests and twenty-five ejections per stadium each week of the season. Of the approximately 47,000 people in attendance at Candlestick, I don’t think anyone was “feeling good about what they did that day.”
The blame game begins. Apart from the finger pointing back and forth between 49er and Raider fans, there has been plenty of blame to go around. That finger pointing has also spawned the inevitable knee-jerk reactions from commentators, sportswriters and politicians. Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, is in the process of drafting a bill to increase the penalties to those who are convicted of fighting at sporting events. Part of this legislation would involve the creation of a fund that would pay rewards to help catch perpetrators of violence at sporting events. This fund would be financed by “donations” from all of California’s professional sports teams. As the author of Assembly Bill 768, which protects male circumcision in the state, Gatto appears to want to protect some weenies while prosecuting others.
“All my rowdy friends are here…” The only positive thing that the knuckleheads at Candlestick Park did was shine a light on the image problem that the NFL has created for itself. The league has long been more than a bit passive about the behavior exhibited by its fans. Look at televised crowd images from major league baseball games: smiling children with baseball gloves, fans catching foul balls and images of crowds singing “take me out to the ballgame.” On NFL broadcasts, we have screaming shirtless face-painted fans drinking multiple beers to a Hank Williams Jr. soundtrack. The NFL has a tough line to walk. On one hand, they need to protect the integrity of their multi-billion dollar industry/sport. On the other, the league makes an insane amount of money in alcohol sales at games as well as through sponsorship and advertising deals with beer companies. For example, Anheuser-Busch recently entered into an agreement to become the official beer of the NFL at a price reported to be over $1 billion dollars.
49ers make more moves off the field than on it. Working in concert with local law enforcement and security advisors from the NFL, the 49ers organization has taken steps to help curb a repeat of the violence and mayhem that took place at the Raiders game. First, future games between the 49ers and the Oakland Raiders have been cancelled indefinitely. Police and security personnel have been increased. DUI checkpoints will be added around Candlestick Park on game days. Fans will be scrutinized more closely upon entering the stadium and denied access if they are intoxicated. Season ticket holders will be punished for any misbehavior by individuals using their seats. At the 49ers game last weekend against the Houston Texans, Team President and CEO Jed York and his wife even sat with fans in the upper deck at Candlestick to show that things had returned to normal. “It’s one thing to say your stadium is safe and you want to up your security,” York said, “but it’s another thing to sit out there with your wife and show that it is safe.” Unfortunately for 49ers fans, the players were not energized by all of this action as the team was pummelled on the field by the Texans 30 to 7…
Tailgaters take a hit in the fight as well. Because of the recent violence, tailgating policies at Candlestick have also been changed. The gates to the parking lots at Candlestick will now open 4 hours before game time. Tailgating will need to end promptly at kickoff time. Police officers and security personnel will be patrolling all lots and asking all people to show their tickets to the game and will then direct them to either enter the game or leave the parking lot. No tailgating will be allowed during or after the game.
Bad apples and bad eggs. I have personally been to countless tailgaters at 49ers and Giants games at Candlestick Park through the years. Although I have seen my share of drunken, belligerent idiots inside and outside of the stadium, the vast majority of the tailgaters are wonderful people who simply want to relax, enjoy some great food and beverages, toss the ball around and see a good game. With our without the rule changes, the people who are generous, conscientious and courteous will continue to be that way. It’s just sad when those responsible tailgaters are painted with the same brush as the idiot troublemakers.
Maybe it’s time to give the ‘Stick the boot. In case anyone has forgotten, the San Francisco Giants used to play at Candlestick Park before moving into the gorgeous confines of AT&T Park. For years, I remember tense night games at Candlestick between the Giants and the Dodgers. Packs of fans running around inside and outside of the stadium looking to start fights with anyone with a pulse. Men (and even a few women and children) walking around wearing “F***K the Dodgers” shirts. Now, in a beautiful new ballpark with modern features and ample security, the environment seems to have become much safer and more “family friendly” than it had ever been at Candlestick Park. Candlestick Park is now one of the oldest and most outdated facilities in the NFL. Perhaps a move to a new, state-of-the-art stadium in Santa Clara will reward true long-time fans and create new ones that can respect, appreciate and afford some beautiful new digs.
“Aretha, gimme some of that R-E-S-P-E-C-T”. Civilized people and true fans of sports and tailgating know to respect your environment, respect the game, respect each other and respect yourself. Good tailgaters will in no doubt lead by example and allow everyone to put this ugly event behind us. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello summed things up pretty well when he was asked about fan violence, “Take responsibility for your own conduct.”
Let’s all now get back to feeling good about what we do the next time that we go tailgating.