Fan brawls per­sist as a prob­lem for pro sports

Ravens, Ori­oles in­ci­dents lat­est to draw at­ten­tion

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Jeff Barker

The se­vere beat­ing of a Ravens fan in the stands Sun­day and a beer can hurled at an Ori­oles out­fielder in Toronto Tues­day night cast re­newed at­ten­tion on an un­for­tu­nately per­sis­tent prob­lem in pro­fes­sional sports — fan mis­be­hav­ior cross­ing the line from boor­ish to dan­ger­ous.

Vi­o­lent acts by fans are not only a safety is­sue, but a public re­la­tions prob­lem for the NFL and other leagues pro­mot­ing them­selves as a fam­ily-friendly way to spend the day and not a small amount of money.

“It seems like ev­ery week­end ev­ery­body is post­ing about some­body get­ting knocked out or punched” at a game, said Bob Dorf­man, ex­ec­u­tive cre­ative di­rec­tor at Baker Street Ad­ver­tis­ing in San Fran­cisco. “As the in-home ex­pe­ri­ence gets bet­ter and bet­ter, the rea­sons for go­ing get less and less.”

Joseph Bauer, 55, re­mains hos­pi­tal­ized in crit­i­cal con­di­tion with a brain in­jury af­ter be­ing beaten at last Sun­day’s Ravens- Joseph Bauer

Oak­land Raiders game, though his fam­ily re­ported the Jes­sup man gave his doc­tors a thumbs-up ear­lier this week. Two Raiders fans were ar­rested and charged with as­sault.

On Tues­day night, a fan in the stands in Toronto threw a full can of beer to­ward Bal­ti­more out­fielder Hyun Soo Kim as he was catch­ing a fly ball in a base­ball wild-card game. In a 2015 play­off game against the Texas Rangers, Blue Jays fans threw water bot­tles, cans, rally tow­els and pa­per con­tain­ers onto the field.

Spec­ta­tor vi­o­lence has been a part of sports since at least Ro­man times, when ri­val char­iot rac­ing fans fre­quently clashed. In A.D. 532, a char­iot race-re­lated riot left thou­sands dead in Con­stantino­ple — mod­ern Is­tan­bul. Hooli­gan­ism is in­grained in Euro­pean soc­cer and even ap­pears in the Olympics, where the 1924 Amer­i­can rugby team was at­tacked with rocks and bot­tles and fled the field with a po­lice es­cort af­ter de­feat­ing France in Paris.

In 2011, San Fran­cisco Giants fan Bryan Stow suf­fered a near-fa­tal beat­ing by two men out­side a Los An­ge­les Dodgers game.

An­a­lysts say the prob­lem of fan vi­o­lence may be in­tractable be­cause of the volatile blend of al­co­hol and fan ex­cite­ment, par­tic­u­larly at higher-stakes games against ri­vals or in the post­sea­son.

“One in­ci­dent is too many and we have worked dili­gently to address be­hav­ior that de­tracts from the game-day ex­pe­ri­ence,” Brian McCarthy, the league’s vice pres­i­dent of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, said this week. “This is some­thing that we take very se­ri­ously.”

The league said it has stepped up sta­dium se­cu­rity mea­sures in re­cent years by us­ing un­der­cover officers and cam­era sur­veil­lance, pa­trolling park­ing lots, in­stalling metal de­tec­tors at gates and es­tab­lish­ing text mes­sag­ing ser­vices for fans seek­ing help in the stands.

The Ravens wouldn’t dis­cuss se­cu­rity pro­ce­dures in­depth but said their “safe man­age­ment team” in­cludes un­der­cover po­lice and uni­formed po­lice officers plus NFL and Ravens se­cu­rity per­son­nel.

Many sta­dium fights caught on video and posted to so­cial me­dia are be­tween fans wear­ing jer­seys of teams play­ing against each other on game days. Few sta­dium al­ter­ca­tions end with in­juries as se­vere as those of Bauer, who was placed on a res­pi­ra­tor.

“In the U.S. there is no con­certed at­tempt to seg­re­gate fans from op­pos­ing teams,” said sports so­ci­ol­o­gist Jay Coak­ley of the Univer­sity of Colorado at Colorado Springs. “This cre­ates sit­u­a­tions around a sta­dium where peo­ple can trash-talk and bait op­pos­ing fans. More of­ten than not, this con­sists of empty talk vo­cal­ized by peo­ple, usu­ally men, seek­ing recog­ni­tion and sta­tus among the spec­ta­tors in a par­tic­u­lar sec­tion.”

But some­times, Coak­ley said, “things may get out of hand when phys­i­cal con­tact oc­curs, when a drink is spilled or thrown at some­one, or when a com­ment is per­ceived as a per­sonal threat or dero­ga­tion.”

Ravens fan Matthew Szewczyk said he’s wit­nessed that mul­ti­ple times, although he has never felt un­safe dur­ing games.

“Ev­ery time I’ve seen it, it’s usu­ally guys jaw­ing at op­pos­ing teams’ fans,” said Szewczyk, from Hamp­stead. “It al­ways has to do with al­co­hol be­ing in­volved. It’s machismo, bravado — what­ever you want to call it.”

Last year, 21.3 mil­lion fans at­tended 333 NFL games. Ar­rests in­side the teams’ sta­di­ums fell from 978 in 2014 to 669 last sea­son, while ar­rests out­side sta­di­ums rose from 449 to 477, McCarthy said.

“Clubs and lo­cal law en­force­ment have stepped up ef­forts in sta­dium lots in re­cent years,” he said.

The NFL said no fig­ures were avail­able on the num­ber of vi­o­lent in­ci­dents.

Bal­ti­more po­lice spokesman Donny Moses said it’s rare for po­lice to make ar­rests at Ravens games. Rather, the depart­ment gen­er­ally tries to break up fights and send the par­tic­i­pants home.

“It’s not un­com­mon” to kick fans out of a game, said Kevin Byrne, the team’s se­nior vice pres­i­dent of public and com­mu­nity re­la­tions. “It’s likely to hap­pen a few times each game, more likely to hap­pen in warmer-weather games.”

Moses said po­lice do have a hold­ing cell at the depart­ment’s com­mand sta­tion at M&T Bank Sta­dium. He said the two men charged with as­sault­ing Bauer were moved to the cell un­til a trans­port van could take them to Cen­tral Book­ing. Po­lice said the men were Raiders fans.

NFL teams of­ten pro­mote the evolv­ing “game-day ex­pe­ri­ence” — ev­ery­thing from the culi­nary op­tions, to scoreboards pro­vid­ing fan­tasy football sta­tis­tics, to one of the largest video screens in the world at the Dal­las Cow­boys’ sta­dium.

Eager to be re­garded as fam­ily-friendly, the league tries to fight the per­cep­tion that the sta­dium ex­pe­ri­ence can be marred by curs­ing fans drink­ing too much.

Szewczyk re­called at­tend­ing a Ravens play­off game in Jan­uary 2012 where “there were four [Hous­ton] Tex­ans fans be­hind us and they were very, very ine­bri­ated. I was there with my friends and fam­ily and the fans are spilling beer, and one time a guy fell lit­er­ally on top of me and was sit­ting on my shoul­ders.”

It is not clear whether game-day brawls are on the rise or sim­ply be­com­ing more pub­licly vis­i­ble be­cause of so­cial me­dia.

The 2016 sea­son hadn’t even be­gun when a group of fans at a pre­sea­son Los An­ge­les Rams game — the team’s first in the city af­ter more than two decades in St. Louis — be­gan fight­ing. A YouTube video showed four fans in­volved, punches wildly thrown and at least two com­bat­ants tum­bling over chairs. An In­stra­gram post showed an­other skir­mish in the park­ing lot at the same game. Some of the com­bat­ants wore jer­seys of the op­pos­ing teams that day: the Rams and the Dal­las Cow­boys.

Last sea­son, a fan was shot and killed af­ter a fight near an AT&T Sta­dium park­ing lot in Texas fol­low­ing a Cow­boys-New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots game.

The com­bi­na­tion of ex­ces­sive al­co­hol and in­tense football loy­al­ties can be po­tent.

Moses said football games — es­pe­cially at night — tend to have more in­ci­dents than base­ball games be­cause fans are of­ten drink­ing “well be­fore the game” while tail­gat­ing.

Al­co­hol sales at M&T Bank Sta­dium are cut off at the end of the third quar­ter. Fans are ejected for “drunk and dis­or­derly be­hav­ior,” ac­cord­ing to the team’s “fan code of con­duct.”

More in­ci­dents seem to oc­cur when the Ravens are host­ing ri­vals like the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers or the Pa­tri­ots, Moses said.

The in­ten­sity of NFL games — of which there are only 16 in the reg­u­lar sea­son com­pared to162 in Ma­jor League Base­ball — may help in­cite fans pre­dis­posed to fight­ing.

“There’s a so­cial iden­tity fans have with the team,” said Ja­son Lan­ter, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Kutz­town Univer­sity in Penn­syl­va­nia. “Each reg­u­lar-sea­son game has more weight in football than other sports, so fans may­place morevalue on­the out­come of the game and could take a loss harder than a reg­u­lar-sea­son base­ball game.” Al­co­hol isn’t al­ways a cul­prit. “Of course, al­co­hol may re­duce in­hi­bi­tions, but there are cases where fans seek to cre­ate a mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ence that they can brag about post-game and for years there­after,” Coak­ley said.

Fans re­ally need to po­lice them­selves, he said.

“If peace­ful fans don’t do some­thing to sanc­tion ob­nox­ious fans,” Coak­ley said, “com­ments may es­ca­late.”

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