I’ve got a friend who, like most Americans, loves just about everything that is the NFL. So much so that the most important date on his calendar right now is Sept. 11, when the Carolina Panthers travel to Arizona for the season opener against the Cardinals.
He’s had season tickets ever since University of Phoenix stadium opened a few years back, and they’re not cheap seats. He and his family sit a few rows up from the field in the corner of an end zone, just the spot to watch Larry Fitzgerald haul in his acrobatic touchdown catches.
Some of the other things he sees, he’s not so excited about. It’s a rare game he attends without someone nearby puking in their seat or equally drunken fans rolling in the next aisle over, fighting each other for who knows what reason.
Make sure if you bring a kid, he or she is familiar with the F-word, too. That’s about all they’ll hear.
“Just like being in a tavern on a Saturday night,” my friend said.
That’s life in some NFL stadiums these days. Extended tailgating, free-flowing beer taps and hyped-up fans make for an often combustible environment in which the game can be little more than a sideshow.
It got way out of control Saturday night in San Francisco, where fights erupted through the stands, a fan was beaten senseless in a restroom, and, finally, two people were shot in the parking lot. More than 70 fans were ejected from the stadium, 12 people were arrested, and dozens of medical calls were made.
It was a public relations disaster for a league riding high on a recent deal with players that guarantees labor peace for the next decade. The 49ers wasted little time in trying to assure fans the stadium will be safe, announcing plans for a ban on post-kickoff tailgating, the addition of postgame drunken-driving checkpoints and more police in the stadium during the game.
That should cut down on the hospitalization count this weekend when the 49ers are host to the Houston Texans in an exhibition game. It might even convince some fans that it will be safe enough to risk taking the family to a game.
The NFL believes it is. League spokesman Greg Aiello issued a statement deploring the “activities of a handful of fans” at the game and said the NFL would continue to work closely with teams and law enforcement agencies to make sure fans behave at games.
“We want fans to have a safe and enjoyable experience at all of our games,” Aiello said.
Judging from fans writing me in the wake of the 49ers shootings, though, the NFL has work to do. To them, the same league that is trying to protect players from injury by moving up kickoffs this season isn’t devoting the same efforts to keep fans safe.
They told of scenes much like the one my friend encounters on Sundays in Arizona, with fans of the other team at the most risk. One woman in her 60s said she was a lifetime Bears fan who made the mistake of going to a road game against the Redskins a few years back and being taunted and verbally abused for cheering for her team.
“Our football pastime is about to go the way of international soccer meets — bloody and violent,” she wrote. “We don’t need that.”
Some of the fans blamed a general decline in the values of society for problems at stadiums and ballparks around the country. They suggested the same kind of behavior that is condoned today in the mass media and at home simply is magnified when people get together in stadiums where they have strength in numbers.
Most, though, put the blame directly on alcohol. Although other sports have problems with drunken fans — who can forget the Phillies fan who intentionally threw up on a little girl — football has more of them, mostly because fans can party in the parking lot for hours before kickoff.
I’ve walked through some of those parking lots several hours before game time, and the amount of drinking that goes on is staggering. By the time many fans get into the stadium, they’re staggering, too, and they have three full quarters — plus halftime — to put away even more booze.
They’re easy enough to spot in any stadium. If anyone in Chicago needs any more help, a blog called “Drunk Bear Fans” takes special delight in showing them off in various stages of drunkenness each week of the season.
A recent University of Minnesota study suggests fans are partying too much. Researchers tested the blood alcohol content of 362 people coming out of 13 Major League Baseball and three NFL games and found that 40 percent of the participants had alcohol in their system, while 8 percent were legally drunk. The study found that those 35 and under were more apt to be drunk, and those who had tailgated were 14 times as likely to be drunk as those who hadn’t.
Those are the people raising a ruckus in their seats next to you. Those are the ones trading punches because they don’t like the jersey the guy in the next row is wearing.
I’ll give the 49ers credit for being proactive about protecting their fans after Saturday’s game. They and the rest of the NFL should go even further: Start tailgating later and cut it off, say, an hour before each game; watch carefully as fans enter the stadium and pull them aside if they look intoxicated; revoke season tickets for anyone who causes a disturbance.
The real fans will understand it’s the right thing to do.
Tim Dahlberg is a Las Vegas-based national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg.