Following the Thursday Night Football game in Denver, The Denver Post reported that three people were stabbed outside of Sports Authority Field. It was the latest chilling reminder that there are many things that trump the importance of football-related concerns like playoff seeding, MVP races and touchdown records.
This incident would be merely troubling if it were isolated, but it's yet another in a long line of fan-violence problems that have plagued the NFL not only this season, but for a number of years. Factoring those in, it proves that the NFL, each team, and the many fans of the sport need to see a change in behavior sooner rather than later.
Earlier this month, a fan died at another Broncos game—this one on the road at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City—in a confusing scenario which seems to be a case of the victim mistakenly getting into the wrong vehicle and overreaction. The very next week, a Detroit Lions fan says he was targeted for wearing a Barry Sanders jersey and eventually knocked unconscious following a Philadelphia Eagles victory at Lincoln Financial Field.
At one game this year, a male New York Jets fan punched a female New England Patriots fan.
The NFL has a duty here to provide a safe atmosphere before, during and after their games. Trust me when I say that they will take that duty very seriously. Actually, let me pass along this reminder from NFL PR executive Greg Aiello, who reminded me of the "NFL Fan Code of Conduct" adopted in 2008:
When attending a game, [fans] are required to refrain from the following behaviors:
—Behavior that is unruly, disruptive, or illegal in nature.
—Intoxication or other signs of alcohol impairment that results in irresponsible behavior.
—Foul or abusive language or obscene gestures.
—Interference with the progress of the game (including throwing objects onto the field).
—Failing to follow instructions of stadium personnel.
—Verbal or physical harassment of opposing team fans.
Elsewhere in the guidelines, the NFL puts the onus on team staff to enforce the rules and lays out repercussions for what can happen when fans don't follow the rules. When asked, specifically, about whether or not the NFL feels it can do more to create a safe atmosphere, Aiello responded: "We can always do more."
No matter what the NFL does, however—short of enacting martial law and turning NFL stadiums into little police states—there is always going to be some blame to shoulder on fans for their own misdeeds.
Note: blame isn't a zero-sum game, and I'm not absolving the NFL from doing anything (nor, in fact, would the NFL accept that absolution). I'm also not blaming the hundreds of thousands of innocent fans that go to games, take their children and loved ones, and act responsibly.
That said, a solid segment of the NFL fan population has to grow up, and they should do it yesterday.
In many ways, this kind of violence is the tragic end that exists when one mixes high emotions, immaturity and (more times than not) alcohol.
So, let's take a look at the components that make up this dangerous cocktail.
Adrenaline Created During a Big Game Doesn't Just Disappear
It's exciting to go to an NFL game. It's supposed to be! That's the point!
Yet, the excitement that comes with sporting events can lead to completely different types of excitement afterward. Rioting following big losses is a sadly regular and expected occurrence around the world. More interestingly, however, is that riots following wins are also common.
Consider that following the Big Ten Championship football game this year, students and fans in East Lansing, Michigan, rioted: turning over a car and setting multiple fires. Arrests were made, property was destroyed, and from the looks of postings on social media, this was considered a normal reaction to people who were joyous about the school's victory and upcoming Rose Bowl berth.
That was hundreds of miles away from where the game was actually played (Indianapolis) and following a victory. Think about what would've happened if the game were at Michigan State, and the team lost. Worse yet, what if it was a close, nail-biting loss. What then?
Another ugly incident involving college football fans happened in Cortland, NY on Nov. 19. An estimated 4,000 to 6,000 fans took to the streets after Division III SUNY Cortland's win over Ithaca College, destroying property and causing general disorder during an alcohol-fueled chaotic frenzy known as Cortaca 2013. 30 people were reportedly arrested during the melee that saw a car driven into a house, and beer bottles and pieces of wood hurled at cops.
Now, East Lansing and Cortland are hardly the only schools that have dealt with inappropriate behavior, and football is hardly the only sport that deals with it. Soccer riots? Same exact situation where adrenaline is pumping so high following a big match that it only takes a little spark to set off a humongous fire.
In Kansas City, would the man who found another man in his jeep have been so quick to act if he'd been walking out of a Macy's rather than pumped up about a big game? Maybe...maybe not. If the Eagles fans had seen that man in a Lions jersey at a library, would they have been driven to similar violence? Seems unlikely.
Excitement and passion aren't leaving the NFL anytime soon. So, this exists only as a reminder for the atmosphere that is possible—even probable—when emotions are flowing.
Maybe the NFL can do something to help vent some of the steam that has built up. Teams are worth billions of dollars, more security certainly isn't out of the question. Perhaps fans (especially those with children) may want to wait around and relax a bit rather than insert themselves into the stressful situation of trying to leave the stadium with thousands of other people.
We can have tons of great ideas, but—sadly—not everyone in the crowd will have the same level of concern.
Fans' Immaturity Usually Provides A Spark for the Powder Keg
If we've identified the emotionally packed atmosphere as the environment that allows for such big explosions, the spark has to come from somewhere. I guarantee it's not from rational, well-adjusted individuals.
No sane person brings a knife to a football game and decides to start stabbing people. Who's taking a knife to a football game, anyway? What's the purpose, to sit in your glove compartment while you're in the stadium? Is it just to look like Crocodile Dundee as you spear your tailgating hot dog?
No, really, it takes a special kind of idiocy to run down the checklist of things you need on the way to an NFL stadium and think: "Hey, I don't have my weapon!"
I can see the comment already, though: "Hey, if those other people had knives..." No, we don't need every postgame parking lot devolving into a scene from Gangs of New York, thank you very much.
Yet, that's the material and utility of the situation. A big problem is the root cause of immature stupidity. Again, I'm not calling every NFL fan stupid—not even a large amount. But, if your modus operandi in the atmosphere we described above is to push people's buttons, something is going to happen eventually.
I used to cover Minnesota Vikings games and would spend hours following the game getting interviews, typing up notes, doing quick radio hits, etc. Sometimes, we'd even tape our weekly sports show in the postgame atmosphere as the Metrodome was clearing out.
Then, hours after the game had finished, I would walk to where I was parked and would marvel at the people still squaring off in the various parking lots—sometimes around makeshift picnic sites or bonfires. I saw more than my share of fistfights, and crossed the street to get away from groups—often with beers in their hands or outside of bars—who clearly wanted to pick some sort of fight with anyone around.
Going to a sporting event and looking for a fight is like going to a party looking to hook up—no matter what. In the end, it's more-than-likely that you've made a terrible decision because you were an idiot heading in.
It's the same sort of immaturity that drives a fan to believe a player's life and livelihood is less important than the fan's fantasy team. It's the same immaturity that ruins social media by attacking athletes and forcing them to put back up the walls that Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have helped bring down.
Same thing? No. Equivalent in terms of moral weight? No, again. Are the actions coming from the same core (lack of) principles? Absolutely.
Alcohol is the Catalyst
Find me an instance of violence among sports fans and you'll likely find some sort of alcohol consumption beforehand.
Every time? No, let's not paint with too broad a brush.
Much of the time? I wholeheartedly believe that to be the case.
The immaturity and the adrenaline that act as the atmosphere and spark for explosions of fan violence also need fuel, and alcohol has been stupid-people fuel for as long as fermentation has been a thing—i.e. forever.
Don't call me a teetotaler, though. I'm not trying to reenact prohibition, or even call for dry Sundays at NFL games. If someone wants to go spend $10 on a beer, that's their right. Go for it. The last professional sporting event I attended that didn't include a beer was before I turned 21. The fact that venues started selling mini-bottles of wine is probably the only reason my wife even comes with me.
Alcohol, though, is the one thing the league and teams have entire control over. If fans don't take it upon themselves to find more responsibility, eventually it will be done for them. I'm talking zero alcohol in the stadiums and zero in the parking areas. It can happen. It might happen in baby steps, but it will happen if the violence continues to get worse.
The argument that alcohol companies sponsor the NFL is weaker than a can of near-beer. The fans in the stands drink beer, yes, but that pales in comparison to the millions who see the ads on TV—mostly males in the key demographic. So, beer companies and the NFL will always be partners, regardless of what's sold (or allowed) in the stadiums.
This isn't saying the NFL wants to do this. It's a revenue stream, and the NFL loves money. The NFL also loves their image, however, and the idea that games are unsafe to attend is a pretty big problem to have.
The biggest problem with all of this is just the senselessness of it all. It's not one isolated group or fanbase. It's not one subset of the population. It's not understandable or predictable. It's just the terrible combination of factors that, alone, aren't necessarily dangerous.
Most of all, what this isn't: is acceptable.
We can, and should, call on the NFL to do more. The buck, however, has to stop with fans everywhere who simply have to be better than the violence, better than the immaturity and better than the irresponsibility.