Commentary

Fans behaving badly? Never fear

You might be surprised at the lengths to which security goes to control bad behavior.

Originally Published: November 13, 2009
By Paula Lavigne | ESPN

Samantha Vrba laughed off the boos and taunts -- "Go home!" they yelled -- flung in her direction as she and her friends walked into Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., a year ago. She expected all of that, in fact, and why not? She knew perfectly well she had made herself into a walking target for some good-natured ribbing from the sea of red-clad Huskers fans.

Vrba, being true to her school, was decked out in a yellow Missouri Tigers T-shirt, a pair of fuzzy tiger ears and an orange-and-black-striped tail.

But she didn't expect what came hurtling toward her near the end of the second quarter.

"A bottle flew at me. A pop bottle. A plastic pop bottle. There was still stuff in it," she said. The green bottle nailed her on the back of her right shoulder, just as she was standing on the bleacher to cheer for a Missouri touchdown.

She didn't see any security officers, only a few ushers, and it didn't seem as if they could do anything. She sat still for a few minutes, until halftime, then quietly scooted out of her row and swapped seats with friends farther down in the section.

"I was born in Nebraska and I know they do have good fans. I didn't think I'd run into one like that," said Vrba, now a sophomore. "It definitely did sour me."

Flying bottles might not be the norm, but encounters such as the one Vrba experienced have been happening often enough at games around the nation to ramp up the level of concern among stadium officials. That's especially true on college campuses, where security struggles to manage crowds of more than 100,000 people, including thousands of students, often fueled by marathon pregame tailgating that furthers the potential for fans behaving badly.

Tailgating isn't a new phenomenon, of course. But some experts and security officials say the rowdiness that results is reaching new depths.

[+] EnlargeSamantha Vrba
Courtesy of Samantha VrbaSamantha Vrba, left, and her friend Emily York showed their Tigers pride and paid a price.
"We believe there is a rise in this, in the lack of civility in the stands," said Daniel Wann, a professor at Murray State University in Kentucky who has researched the habits and proclivities of sports fans. "People are not as nice as they were 20 to 40 years ago. If that's true when you're driving to work in a traffic jam, it's obviously true in the stands."

The evidence ranges from the dozens of people who are ejected from their seats each week for disorderly conduct to misbehavior of a more serious nature, such as an incident on Oct. 11, 2008, at Oregon's Autzen Stadium in which two men fighting over a seat toppled over a railing and fell seven feet to the ground behind the visiting team's bench. One lost consciousness and the other injured his knee, but both agreed not to press charges.

Alcohol is often the common denominator, as exemplified by a 45-year-old woman at a Florida game Sept. 19 who slapped a University of Florida police officer and head-butted him in the stomach after being led out of the stadium for drunken behavior.

At Georgia, campus police chief Jimmy Williamson has seen his share of fights involving people in their 40s and 50s "who should know better." One man punched a woman and broke her nose, he said. His officers have dealt with people urinating from the upper deck, spitting on people, dealing drugs in the bathroom, "fights galore" and even a kidnapping.

"A lot of it is the theory that 'What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.' They're going back to their college roots," Williamson said.

Recently, colleges and universities have begun to push back in the effort to control the misbehavior. Some schools have launched sportsmanship initiatives, stepped up enforcement of liquor laws and tried to do a better job of screening fans at the gates. T-shirts with foul or overly aggressive language are out, as are fight songs that lead to obscene shouting. At Ole Miss last month, the chancellor even asked that the lyrics to a fight song be changed to discourage fans from chanting "The South will rise again." To some, that phrase is an offensive emblem of the region's politically incorrect history.

Perhaps the most encouraging trend is the use of high-tech devices to identify potential troublemakers and get a handle on how much damage they can really do. For example, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security gave Georgia a $236,000 grant last year to install a new surveillance camera system at Sanford Stadium that allows police to monitor fan behavior, which should help spot problems, Williamson said.

Tallying troublemakers

Statistics aren't much help in gauging whether fan behavior really has worsened because colleges treat offenders with varying degrees of tolerance. Behavior that gets you a dirty look from an usher in one stadium can get you arrested and thrown in jail in another. According to Georgia's Williamson, officers often don't have a good system for tracking the actions they do take. Other campus security officials agree.

When ESPN surveyed campus police at the nation's largest public college football stadiums to see how many people they eject, ticket and arrest for rude or illegal behavior on game day, the responses were far from uniform. University of Michigan officials, for example, provided a precise breakdown of hundreds of arrests, citations and ejections cross-tabulated by game and offense at "The Big House" for the past several years. But University of Alabama officials couldn't produce a single number for Bryant-Denny Stadium.

21st-Century Crowd Control

This fall, Auburn became one of about three dozen schools to adopt text messaging as a way to report unruly behavior and other concerns discreetly. Officials are counting on the $10,000 system to catch problems they're missing -- as long as enough fans catch on and use it. Paula Lavigne examines the latest in stadium security on "Outside the Lines" at 9 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPN.

And see these related stories:

OTL: College football's worst-behaved fans
SportsNation: Fans tell their stories
Reilly: Don't take my tailgate away!

Consider the disparity among some of the larger stadiums in the Big 12 Conference alone. Oklahoma reported nine arrests all of last season. Nebraska logged just one. Texas A&M tallied seven. And Texas officials arrested 63.

Texas campus police Capt. Don Verett doesn't believe Longhorns fans are any rowdier than fans at other schools. He said a difference in enforcement, staffing or alcohol laws could explain some of the variation.

"I have been to those other venues and have seen just as many drunken fans at their venues as we have at ours," he said.

Officers at Georgia eject more than 300 fans per game -- which is the highest among colleges surveyed -- but they arrest only about five; most of the arrests are for illegal drug possession, Chief Williamson said.

But even with 200 law enforcement officers, he said he simply doesn't have enough people to keep up.

"The sad thing is, we're dealing with it in such a short period of time," he said. "We're not documenting and dealing with it like we would otherwise. We just don't have the time. … Every time you arrest someone, you tie up an officer for 40 to 45 minutes. About 25 to 30 percent of the people we eject could be arrested, but we choose not to. We're just trying to survive that day."

Williamson said he doesn't get a sense that fans today are any worse than they used to be. But he and other campus police chiefs have seen an increase in the intensity of tailgating activities leading up to the game. That is spurred in large part by the growth in the use of portable satellite receivers and big-screen televisions running on car batteries or generators. Early in the morning, fans stake out spots around the stadium where they erect canopies, set up lawn chairs and grills, and break out coolers with lots and lots of alcohol -- even on some campuses where drinking alcohol in public is technically illegal.

Murray State's Wann said the number of fan indiscretions these days might seem to be on the rise because they are so easily publicized thanks to 24/7 media coverage and the rise of social networking and cell phone cameras that can capture anyone's drunken antics and tweet them to the world in mere minutes.

Text JERK to 55555

This fall, at least three dozen colleges have taken to technology and tried to turn it to their advantage through texting. Sending a text message to report unruly behavior is an option now for fans at Nebraska, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Rutgers, Florida, Maryland and Miami, among others. It's the same system professional sports stadiums have adopted in recent years. An 11,000-seat high school stadium in Southlake, Texas, has incorporated it successfully, as well.

[+] EnlargeMan on stretcher
AP Photo/Rick BowmerAfter a fight in the stands, this fan left last year's UCLA-Oregon game the hard way.
At Auburn University, fans can use their cell phone or PDA to send a text message with the word AUBURN, a description of their problem and their location to 78247, and the text appears on a screen in a laptop in the press box. From there, officials can respond and use security cameras to zoom in on the section in question.

"I think the average fan can look at it and say, 'I now have an immediate voice to the people who make things happen on game day, and I can have an impact in a positive way on the environment," said Jeff Steele, Auburn's associate athletic director of facilities and operations.

"If I've got my children here, and I've got a guy who sits three rows in front of me, and for years I've listened to him use inappropriate language, I don't have to do that anymore. I can text message without getting directly involved in the situation," he said.

Steele said he hopes the text message system allows Auburn to catch some of the problems that have been overlooked.

"I would guesstimate that we probably missed 40 percent of the issues that we had on game day, and those could be anywhere from a restroom cleaning issue and a restroom supply issue to problems with physical violence," he said.

At a mid-September night game against West Virginia this season, Auburn alumni Jarrod and Amy Brandon, both nurses from Opelika, Ala., sent a text message reporting a group of people who were smoking and drinking near the top of their section.

"Our entire section, everybody, was wanting something to be done, and everybody said, 'Oh yeah, we've got the new texting system,'" Amy Brandon said. "So Jarrod had his phone nearby and he sent the text, and they came right away and took care of it."

The Brandons didn't have to deal with the offending group directly or get involved in any sort of confrontation that would detract from their attention to the game as officers escorted one of the drinkers, a woman still holding a beer bottle, out of Jordan-Hare Stadium. When the 29-year-old accountant tried to re-enter about a half-hour later, officers arrested her; she was charged in connection with trespassing and taken to jail.

[+] Enlargedrinking game
AP Photo/Reinhold MatayThe game before the game -- in this case, a drinking game before the football game -- sometimes leads to trouble in the stands.
As an ESPN reporter watched alongside the security official in the press box, Auburn fans texted 25 times during the West Virginia game, although only 18 of the messages involved legitimate issues ranging from complaints of people smoking, drinking or fighting to questions about how to get a shuttle bus. One person texted a plea for help dealing with an infestation of ants in Section 4, Row 56.

The rest of the texts were silly -- not necessarily pranks, but not serious concerns, either. One, for example, apparently came from a member of the Mountaineers marching band, which stuck it out in the stands in a downpour that delayed the game for an hour. It read: "My feet are soaked and we don't know how to keep from getting jungle rot. West Virginia marching band, let's go." Another person sent in a text asking for a towel.

Two main companies, In Stadium Solutions and GuestAssist, sell text-messaging services for about $4,000 to $6,000 each, according to university contracts. Company executives say stadiums can expect about 100 to 150 messages per game.

At Florida, where the system is advertised prominently in The Swamp, fans texted 143 times in a Sept. 19 matchup against Tennessee. But at Maryland, only about five texts per home game have been trickling in.

"We haven't got as many hits as we were hoping," said Nick Morrow, Maryland's assistant athletic director for facilities, operations and events. He said marketing officials have been reluctant to sacrifice potentially lucrative ad space in the stadium and on message boards to publicize the new service, but he expects some allowance for more exposure in advance of a high-profile matchup against Virginia Tech this Saturday.

"It's been a bit of an education process," Morrow said.

Several tailgaters at the Sept. 19 game at Jordan-Hare Stadium said they weren't aware of Auburn's text message system, either. And a few students, including Tyler Martin, said they would be reluctant to rat someone out even if they're exposed to the bad behavior.

"I'm never going to complain against another fan in the stadium, regardless of what happens," he said.

The next step

In a skybox at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Jared Burkholder has a prime view of the field during Nebraska's game against Texas Tech on Oct. 17 this year. But he isn't watching the football action. Instead he inputs data into a laptop, which projects the information on a wall above him along with three screens of security camera video.

Burkholder is a geographic information specialist -- someone who spots trends in data through mapping. Neither he nor his boss, Chief Owen Yardley, is aware of any other campus police department with such a job.

On game day, Burkholder logs incidents called in by patrolling officers, spotted by cameras or reported by text message, though texting about unruly fans is still rare at Nebraska. He enters the details into a program that instantly maps them on a digitized schematic of the stadium.

Every incident is identified with a dot, and the dots merge to show "hot spots," or trouble areas that might require more security. Factoring in time of day, the opponent and the weather, officers can try to predict -- inside the stadium as well as around it -- where they're going to encounter unruly fans and medical emergencies.

Throughout the season, Burkholder analyzes the data. As a result, he knew after the first three home games of 2009 that the number of intoxicated fans trying to enter the stadium is up from last year. And by tracking which gates they entered, he could determine whether they came from certain tailgating areas, parking lots or downtown bars. Yardley said officials are using that information to target areas of enforcement and awareness.

[+] EnlargeStadium Map
Courtesy of UNL PoliceNebraska's GIS mapping program keeps track of police, fire and medical calls in Memorial Stadium.
Each incident at Nebraska also corresponds to a seat number and the name of the season-ticket holder. At a stadium where 93 percent of seats are held by season-ticket holders, officers can personally address repeat offenders, if necessary, Yardley said.

As long as the payback is worth the cost, Yardley envisions expanding the use of GIS and data-tracking tools.

"I hate to say we're way ahead of everybody else. [But] from what I understand, we do a significant amount, probably more so, than other places we travel to," he said. "We try to be as proactive as possible to identify things so we can lower the risk. We keep the venue as safe as possible without a lot of people even knowing what we're doing."

That's encouraging news to Vrba, the unfortunate Missouri fan. This year, Vrba, who grew up in Omaha, went to Nebraska's September game against Louisiana-Lafayette with some friends from high school. They made her wear a red Huskers T-shirt this time so she wouldn't stick out.

"Everyone was pretty good," she said, noting that at least three security guards were patrolling her area of the student section.

Yardley said he can always use more bodies, even with the new technology. The data mapping, he said, is intended to "supplement our officers in order to provide more efficient and better service."

Nebraska's system won't be able to predict when the next flying bottle will peg a rival fan, but troublemakers should take heed, nonetheless: Those security cameras are also recording.

Paula Lavigne is a reporter in ESPN's Enterprise Unit and can be reached at paula.lavigne@espn.com. Her work appears on "Outside the Lines." "Outside the Lines" producer Lindsay Rovegno contributed to this report.