The recent violence between San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders fans last weekend at Candlestick Park has brought the topic of fan behavior back to the minds of sports fans across the country.
As a San Diego Chargers fan, it's very easy to pin this most recent incident on the Raiders and point to the team's reputation as a group of thugs on the field and their fans' reputation of being thugs off the field.
However, the truth of the matter is that it could have happened almost anywhere these days. As Americans, we tend to look down our noses at the soccer hooligans and violence in other countries, but when we look in the mirror, the NFL is not that far away.
Chances are, anyone who has attended a professional sports event has either been subjected to or witnessed some level of verbal or physical confrontation. In a testosterone-fueled environment and with a certain amount of conflict condoned and even expected on the field of play, where do we draw the line for football fans?
Football is not the opera, and fans do not attend games to sit quietly and clap softly after a short gain; we want to live vicariously through the players, be loud and boisterous and often times see the game as a release.
Someone who complains about verbal taunting or profanity is seen as soft and probably subject to questions about why they're at the game in the first place. However, very few fights start without some level of verbal confrontation first, so how does one allow for freedom of speech and enjoying a Sunday afternoon without allowing the potential for things to escalate?
Obviously, no team wants their (or other teams') fans to fear for their safety and wonder what the guy sitting behind them is capable of doing to them, so teams are attempting to be proactive.
The current focus seems to be more on the side of prevention, as teams are usually quick to increase the number of security and police personnel, curb alcohol consumption and threaten a severe slap on the wrist for those caught causing trouble.
With the current price of NFL tickets, being ejected from the game or having their season tickets revoked should make someone think twice about getting out too rowdy at a game. While I have no doubt that this approach has deterred some people from crossing the line, has it truly decreased the problem? Despite teams having ways to report problems anonymously and increasing the number of police officers, the violence continues. It seems like the best way to keep people from going down this path is to make the punishment so severe, it serves as a deterrent to those even considering it.
Recently I have seen the suggestion that fan-on-fan violence be considered a hate crime, which on the surface seemed to me to be a bit harsh. However, the more I've thought about it, the more it seems like it might be a valid suggestion.
The definition of a hate crime according to Merriam-Webster's dictionary is: "any of various crimes (as assault or defacement of property) when motivated by hostility to the victim as a member of a group (as one based on color, creed, gender, or sexual orientation)." Adding in the words "social organization" (which definitely would include a sports team), how does that not fit the description of what has taken place recently? I'm sure that having an additional one-to-three years of prison added onto the sentence of a fan who is found guilty of assaulting a fan from another team would send a strong message to other fans to think twice about throwing a punch or ambushing someone solely because of the logo on the hat or jersey.
Critics will no doubt see this as a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that has existed for years and point to a few times when someone without a violent criminal record will have their life changed due to one alcohol fueled bad decision.
However, this does not apply to two people who engage in a fight (who escalate things and fight regardless of team affiliation) or the loudmouth jerk sitting behind you that can barely stand up because he's so drunk; this is meant to stem violence against people minding their own business who get cold-cocked in the jaw and have done nothing to deserve it.
I agree it could be a slippery slope to go down, but I see it as a much better option than turning football stadiums into police states that punish the majority of fans who can control themselves.
I have no doubt that teams consider this to be a major concern and understand the consequences of not addressing the problem.
With the economy already making it difficult for fans to afford current NFL ticket prices, the thought of being unsafe while watching the game makes it even harder to sell tickets.
The NFL has put a lot of effort into keeping their players safe during the offseason; the next step should be to protect their fans.