Fan violence raises concerns, even at Super Bowl

Fans brawling in stands
Fans brawling in stands

It’s scary when the most dangerous time at a sporting event isn’t when two 200-plus pound football players collide full speed.

What’s scarier is what happens amongst fans in the stands and in the parking lot after the game.

With the Super Bowl taking center stage this weekend in Glendale, Arizona, the NFL has assembled a massive task force to avoid fan violence. A task force necessary, considering the long past of violence between fans at sporting events all over the world.

In March of 2011, two Los Angeles Dodgers fans brutally beat Bryan Stow, a 42-year-old Giants fan and firefighter to the point of permanent brain damage in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium

Two years later, following a game in San Francisco, a group of Giants fans stabbed to death a Los Angeles Dodger fan outside AT&T Park.

In September 2014, a video of a brawl between fans of the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers emerged from a game in Arizona during week three of the NFL season. A group of eight Cardinals and 49ers fans, man and woman, young and old, threw punch after punch until a tumble down a set of stairs left the ground splattered in blood.

Incidents like these happen often all over the world from high school girls soccer, to professional sports.

This Sunday, Feb. 1, tens of thousands of NFL fans will descend upon the desert for the largest sporting event in the United States.

University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona will play host to Super Bowl XLIX and its ever-growing legion of rabid fans. The NFL, Glendale Police Department, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection are tasked with keeping the Super Bowl violence free.

Sports fandom is fascinating. There are billions of sports fans in the world who take such joy and pain in their teams success and defeat. Fans allow sports teams to play so heavily on their moods. The association with a team or group is very important to humans, according to Dr. Jeff Stone, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona. “Group membership is about as important as our own self esteem and worth,” said Stone. “Our own self worth is reliant on their behavior,” he added.

Sporting events bring together thousands of individuals fueled with passion and their self worth on the line. Despite the team and stadium owners best attempts to control such a large group of people, it’s impossible to keep an eye on everyone.

“There is always heated banter whenever there is competition,” said Andy Brown, the owner of A Team Tucson, the security team that works the athletic games hosted by the University of Arizona.

Brown’s security team is trained to find feuds before they turn violent, but with so many people “that doesn’t always work,” he said.

Arizona Stadium, the home of the Arizona Wildcats football team, holds 57,400 fans, and Brown said they employ about 120-130 security officers a game. That’s a ratio of only one security officer per 440 fans.

On Feb. 1, University of Phoenix Stadium will be packed to capacity with 63,400 fans. The stadium parking lots, and local bars and restaurants will be packed with tens of thousands of more fans who couldn’t score America’s hottest ticket.

In hopes of controlling this massive congregation of people, the NFL, Glendale Police Department, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection is supplying amped up security.

The NFL relies on security company S.A.F.E. Management to monitor fan activity in the stands and at the stadium gates as fans pass through metal detectors and bag checks, according to the S.A.F.E. Management website. However the security company is tight-lipped regarding the specifics of their strategy to monitor fan behavior, as security manager Jain Borries explained when she said only the NFL is at liberty to reveal security details.

The Glendale Police Department will be monitoring fan behavior inside the stadium, as well as outside.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection will be assisting the Glendale Police Department outside the stadium, with four Black Hawk helicopters, smaller aircraft, and two mobile X-ray machines called Eagles, according to John Lawson, an operations officer for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

In order to avoid violence on a grander scale than fan-on-fan, the Eagles are stationed in the University of Phoenix parking lot, scanning large commercial vehicles that are dropping off supplies to the stadium, said Lawson.

The aircraft patrolling the temporary no fly zone skies above the Super Bowl will monitor for unauthorized aircraft as well as supply “an eye in the sky for responders on the ground,” should a situation of violence occur, said Lawson.

With an extensive security and police presence on hand, fans should be discouraged to act violent.

However according to Dana Fox, the defense attorney who represented the Dodgers in the Bryan Stow case, it’s nearly impossible for teams to prevent fan violence.

Fox said that the Dodgers spent $66,000 on security for the game where Stow was attacked, the most they have ever spent on security for a game in the history of Dodger Stadium. The intensity of the rivalry had the Dodgers concerned. There were around 57 LAPD officers solely patrolling the parking lot where the beating happened, according to Fox. However it only takes a few seconds of non supervision for the damage to be done.

“There always has to be some personal responsibility,” said Fox.

So why is personal responsibility left at home by so many fans at sporting events?

Stone says the idea of group mentality, called deindividuation in the psychology field, is a key factor. “When people are in a mob situation they focus their attention out on the mob, and therefore their own values, standards, and behaviors become less important. The mob becomes preeminent in their thinking, and people end up acting in ways that become violent,” said Stone.

Rarely do fans of different teams who cross paths in public places like the street, restaurant, or mall verbally and physically fight one another. In these environments it’s likely they will be held responsible for their violence, and Stone believes that the anonymity of being in a large crowd allows fans to dissociate themselves from the accountability of their behavior.

Dr. Jerry M. Lewis, a sociologist professor at Kent State University and the author of Sports Fan Violence in North America, said that although sociologists don’t believe in mob mentality, he believes that the active core of violent fans are trying to seek approval from their fellow fans. But Lewis eagerly stressed that the active core of violent fans is a small group comparatively.

It’s doubtful that violence will stop occurring at sporting events, but there are things the organization, law enforcement, and fans can do to help control it as best as possible.

“You have to take all reasonable steps to make sure everyone is safe. Go to the greatest extent you can to reduce or dissuade bad behavior,” said Fox referring to the organization and law enforcement. “Look at statistics and identify what games are going to be the most dangerous and increase security. If you know you have a bad or rowdy section, you patrol that,” he said.

According to Brown, the home team’s organization can be a great help in reducing violence by pushing a friendly environment. “The University of Arizona has done a great job promoting sportsmanship and being a good fan,” he said. “The school has announcements and creates an atmosphere that promotes a family friendly environment.”

Stone believes the best way to mitigate violence is to increase the accountability of violent fans and keep their moral compass aligned. “If people knew there were cameras watching them, and they could be individually identified, that could reduce anonymity,” he said.   “A lot of college campus’s and pro sports teams get people to refer back to their own moral compass by using messages about drinking responsibly and exercising good sportsmanship.”

But the deeply competitive nature that makes billions of people fans of sports is also the factor that breeds violence.

As George Orwell once said in his article, The Sporting Spirit, “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules, and sadistic pleasure in violence. In other words, it is war without shooting.”

Joe D’Andre is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at jdandre@email.arizona.edu

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