- Mike Fish, ESPN Senior Writer
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A warning to fans heading to NFL stadiums this weekend: Show up early and prepare for security screening to be ratcheted up.
Even though federal law enforcement officials have determined Internet threats about dirty bomb attacks on NFL venues to be a hoax, security experts and stadium officials acknowledge the latest scare should only serve to heighten alert at major sporting events, at least for the coming weeks.
The threats, posted on a Web site, said trucks would deliver radiological bombs Sunday to stadiums in Atlanta, New York, Miami, Seattle, Houston, Cleveland and Oakland. Homeland Security officials cautioned the NFL mid-week about what was characterized as a "non-credible" threat. On Thursday, the FBI determined it was a hoax inspired by two writers competing to post scary threats.
"I don't think people got inordinately spun up in this, but I know that there are a number of stadium security people and organizations that did use this as a basis for looking at where they are right now," said Kyle Olson, a bioterrorism expert and president of The Olson Group. "A couple of them have been in contact with us over the last 24 hours, saying 'Maybe we need to do a little something extra here.' It is always useful to get reminded that in fact there is a legitimate threat out there. Maybe nothing quite as comic-book graphic as this, but that there is legitimate risk.
"Again, a lot of these [stadium management groups] have done some very good work. Others have been sort of coasting on the coattails of what local law enforcement or Homeland Security has been doing."
Olson, whose firm consults with governmental agencies as well as facility operators, gives high marks to both the NFL and Major League Baseball for the implementation of security measures. He suggests, however, that the same vigilance lags slightly when it comes to the larger indoor venues used for basketball and hockey.
Even before the Internet chatter, the nation's general alert level remained at yellow, signaling an elevated risk of an attack. The fact that word of the potential threat was quickly and widely disseminated is indicative of the times.
"There are people that take these things very seriously," Olson said. "Homeland Security and the law enforcement community, the counter-terrorism community, have certainly taken a stance since 9/11 that they're not going to be accused of withholding information. They're going to try and evaluate it, couch it appropriately. They're not going to try and scare people with it. There is a broader understanding that it is better to share information. And there is just a little bit of [cover-your-behind] being played here, too. No one wants to be the guy who sat on information and then come Black Sunday you have something like this go off."
Security experts claim the bogus threat, if nothing else, is a needed jolt to procedures that have perhaps grown lax over time. Like with anything, the natural progression is to start off with a high level of vigilance and get comfortable as the threat goes away.
"There may be some people that since the feds have discounted the threat that just write it off," said William Waugh Jr., a bioterrorism expert at Georgia State University. "I think because of the legal liability that anybody who [oversees] at a sporting event, or any event with a lot of people, will at least warn security to be extra vigilant. You sort of have to do something in case something happens and you have to go to court. You don't want to pretend to have security that you don't because there is a legal liability."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said no extra security measures are being advised this weekend, though teams are expected to follow the league's comprehensive security procedures that recommend bag searches, pat-downs of fans entering facilities and securing a 100-foot area around the stadium perimeter.
In Atlanta, where the Falcons host the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, fans are being encouraged to arrive early so the sellout crowd can get through security and in its seats before kickoff.
"We don't discuss specifics and can't discuss what extra measures may be taken Sunday, but safety and security of our fans, our team, our staff team and player team is a top priority," said Katy Pando, spokesperson for the Georgia Dome. "We are ready for the game, whether [the threat] was a hoax or not."
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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