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Sports Law

The Tulane Law School Sports Law program provides students with the background necessary to understand and handle problems unique to the sports industry.

Disturbing Trends in Stadium Safety
Written by: Emma Stendig
With Research Assistance by: Eric Ferrante

Brian Stow, the San Francisco Giants fan beaten at Dodgers Stadium early this baseball season, was finally released from the hospital and into rehab this month.  But the debate about stadium safety, especially in professional baseball and football, continues to make headlines.  Leagues and stadium operators face a myriad of issues; including pat downs, tailgating, intense regional rivalries and unsafe conditions.  In an era when live-game-attendance is in serious competition with television broadcasts, leagues and teams must make a concerted effort to ensure the safety of their stadiums if they are to stand a chance in attracting spectators to their events.  Yet, it remains to be seen how leagues and stadium operators are going to deal with these ongoing problems.  One thing is clear though, no matter what they decide to do, they have to address the role that alcohol plays in the majority of the incidents that have rocked the sports world.
Long before Brian Stow, the NFL instituted mandatory pat downs at all games.  Shortly after 9/11 the league recognized football games and stadiums as "soft targets" for terrorists, highly visible events followed by millions that also uniquely embody American values and celebrations.  As the only league with mandated pat downs, the NFL looks to shield itself, host teams, and stadium operators from massive tort liability in the event of an attack.  While most fans are accepting and understanding of the pat downs, constantly reminded by signs and stadium personnel, there is a minority who strongly oppose the pat downs.1
An ACLU representative has described the pat down as "essentially being groped by a stranger." Others cite the 4th amendment which requires physical searches by government personnel to be reasonable.  Critics of those who oppose the pat downs say the criticisms are unfair and fans consent to them by entering the stadium and attending the game.  Nevertheless, the California Supreme Court decided a case in March of 2009 holding that ticket holders adequately alleged a legally protected interest and a reasonable expectation of privacy not to be subjected to pat downs when attending a football game.  Still, violence at football games persists despite the pat downs.  A little over a month ago, on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 a fan attacked another fan with a taser during the Jets home opener against the Cowboys at New Meadowlands stadium in New Jersey.2   The man was charged with aggravated assault and weapons possession charges; he was later released on $22,500 bail.  Despite increased security for the anniversary, no one could explain how the taser made it past security during the pat down and into the stadium.

Attacks from other fans are not the only dangers spectators face when attending a professional sporting event.  The safety of the stadiums themselves has recently been called into question, with many teams and stadium operators taking extra precautions to ensure safety.  However, for a few families, the extra measures have come too late.  A Texas man fell 20 feet to his death while at a Rangers game trying to catch a baseball thrown to him by outfielder Josh Hamilton.3  This death was the second fatal fall at a major league ballpark this season.  A year earlier, another fan suffered a fractured skull and sprained ankle as a result of his failed attempt to catch a foul ball at the Rangers ballpark.  Since these incidents, the Rangers have redesigned and refitted the railings, put up warning signs, and now provide audio warnings over the public address system before each game.4 They also insist security will strictly enforce a new policy of no leaning or standing on the railings.  While these precautions will obviously help, there are some fan injuries that simply cannot be foreseen.  A 27-year old man struck his head on the concrete and died after trying to slide down a railing at Coors Field in Colorado this season.  Security and stadium personnel can do their part, but it is apparent that fans will have to try as well.

Intense rivalries have been the cause of most fan-on-fan violence as of late.  Brian Stow was beaten into a medically-induced coma after wearing a San Francisco Giants jersey to the team's game against the Dodgers at Dodgers stadium.  Two individuals have been arrested for the beatings.  The Stow family has also filed a civil suit against the Dodgers, team owner Frank McCourt, and 13 other team entities.  The suit alleges claims of, among other things, premises liability, negligent hiring, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.  The Stow family claims the Dodgers have cut down on security despite a well-known gang presence at their games and that the poor lighting and poor response time from emergency personnel contributed to Stow's attack.5
Another California rivalry resulting in violence occurred during pre-season football this August.  Two 49ers fans were shot, one critically, after a game against the Raiders.  A third man was beaten unconscious in a stadium bathroom during the fourth quarter.6   As a result, the 49ers have banned tailgating at the stadium after kickoff.7  Most commentary on the recent surge in stadium violence suggests alcohol to be a major, if not the deciding, factor in the incidents.  The 49ers plan to forbid alcohol consumption after games and set up various DUI checkpoints near the stadium after the games.
Stadium safety is clearly an issue that not enough teams and stadium operators are paying attention to.  On one hand, the stadiums are unsafe, not accounting for common fan behavior such as leaning to catch a baseball, and the teams and operators need to figure out ways to create a safer environment while also allowing fans to enjoy the experience of attending a game.  Professional sports games are a multi-billion dollar industry and it does seem ludicrous that teams and stadiums would cut back on security personnel and things like adequate lighting in the parking lots.8   On the other hand, fans need to be held accountable for their actions.  It is one thing to be passionate about your team, but it is quite another to attack a rival fan and cause them serious bodily harm.  Factors such as pat downs, security, and lighting can be considered at length, but as alcohol plays a huge role in most, if not all, of these incidents.  Despite the negative impact on game day revenue, it might be time for teams and stadium operators to consider more restrictive policies on alcohol consumption at games to ensure these types of incidents don't continue.

1 Questioning the Legality of Pat Downs
2 Fan Uses Illegal Taser at Jets Game
4 http://content.usatoday.com/communities/dailypitch/post/2011/07/texas-fan-death-rangers-raise-railings-announce-nolan-ryan/1
5 http://www.sfexaminer.com/local/crime/2011/05/family-beaten-giants-fan-bryan-stow-files-lawsuit-against-dodgers
6California Heat has Fans at Dangerous Boiling Point
7 49ers to Ban Tailgating After Kickoff
8 http://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/Dodgers-Plan-to-File-Civil-Action-Against-Stow-Beating-Suspects-129923458.html
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