Only a small percentage of fans engage in violence at sporting events, but in order to keep venues safe for all fans, the teams and personnel, rules about behavior must be clear and consistently enforced.
That was the sentiment among some of the country’s most highly respected and recognized experts in safety and security, as they shared their insights and answered questions from audience members at the 2012 National Sports Safety and Security Conference and Exhibition’s National Forum Tuesday in New Orleans.
The event was hosted by the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security at The University of Southern Mississippi and focused on securing sport and entertainment venues against the threat of specator violence. It included representatives from many of the country’s major professional sports leagues, as well as directors and coordinators of security for large organization in the public and private sectors.
Some fans have a sense of entitlement just because they paid for a ticket, thinking misbehavior is okay and that their actions will go undetected because of the dynamic of being within a larger group. But most of the panelists believe that violent behavior is confined to about one percent of fans and can be addressed with a proactive approach.
“If you can identify that one percent of fans (engaging in inappropriate behavior) you can focus your resources on that one percent,” said panelist Jim Mercurio, Vice President of Stadium Operations and Security for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers.
Issues including alcohol use among fans, gang activity, the impact of intense rivalry games on fans and other challenges were the focus of the questions posed to the panelists by moderator Gabe Feldman, professor and program director of the Tulane University Sports Law Program.
“This is an opportunity to gain knowledge that can translate to other venues,” said panelist Jeff Miller, Vice President and Chief of Security for the National Football League (NFL). “In this field (safety and security), we need to learn from each other.”
Miller said that the security goal of professional sporting leagues should be to “create a good, positive environment so people want to come” to their games.
Having a clear set of rules and expectations, including those concerning alcohol, that are consistently enforced for everyone – even team and organization executives - can limit unwanted incidents. “Holding everyone accountable sends the message that we all have to fall under the same standard,” he said.
As to the issue of fans misbehavior during intense rivalry games, Miller said there’s nothing wrong with enhancing home field advantage by encouraging the team’s fans to be more enthusiastic, but respect for the opponent and their fans can and should also be part of the message.
“Just because you’re at a venue supporting the opposing team doesn’t mean you should be exposed to harassment,” Miller said.
Nelson Rodriguez, Executive Vice President, Competition, for Major League Soccer, said that often disruptive behavior is directed toward the home team and officials. He said he’s concerned that the vitriol some fans direct at their team when they’re losing or not playing up to their expectations is at an “obscene” level.
Regarding gang activity at sporting events, Miller said gang members identifying with a team that uses their colors will even follow them on the road at away game, especially if they are playing another team whose colors are associated with a rival gang. However, gang violence at games usually occurs outside stadiums, including at venue parking areas.
“There’s a few games on the (NFL) schedule that I can point to (that potentially involve gang activity),” Miller said. “Not a lot, but a few you have to look at closely.”
As the Summer 2012 Olympics are ongoing in London, Miller said sporting event security is especially prominent in the minds of many, as the international city takes extra measures to protect those participating and watching the competition in person.
“I know some of the (law enforcement) commanders there personally from when we’ve (NFL) held games there,” Miller said. “They are very professional, and I have the highest degree of confidence in their abilities to keep the athletes and fans safe.”
The conference attracted the attention of major media, including ESPN which was represented by national reporter John Barr. Barr interviewed Miller and Dr. Ari Novick, a psychologist representing the AJ Novick Group at the conference, for a segment examining van violence for the ESPN series “Outside the Lines.”
“It’s an issue that cuts across the spectrum of sports,” Barr said. “One question is, is it getting worse, or is it because we’re just more aware of it?”
Novick and his group have developed training and education programs for fans cited for engaging in inappropriate behavior at sporting events, and are required to take part in the programs in order to return to the venue. The program addresses alcohol use, a disruptive fan’s behavior and its effect on other fans, and teaches basic skills about empathy and dealing with game day stressors.
“We want to develop a culture of civility among fans,” Novick said. “We believe our program really provides a platform for educating them so we won't have so many offenses."
The conference offered an excellent opportunity for ESPN, Barr said, because it included so many experts in one place. He also sees the event as a strong signal that fan violence is a priority among leaders in the professional sports industry and elsewhere.
“It’s encouraging to me that this has been organized,” he said. “It suggests to me that they are taking it seriously.”