Fan Violence at Sporting Events: Human Nature or Negligence?

May 10, 2019

By: Dr. Anthony Rosselli, Texas A&M University — Commerce
Three…. Two….One…. BALLGAME! The home team has suffered an agonizing defeat at the hands of its most hated rivals (the referees were clearly biased of course) and the rival fans celebrate the win. While most of the loyal fans of the home team shake their heads and head for the exits, a few “die-hard” patrons (who may or may not have had more than a few alcoholic beverages) decide to take their frustration out on the rival fans in attendance. What starts as schoolyard banter and chest pounding quickly escalates into something more. The combination of bravado, passion, and (perceived) injustice of the outcome of the game turn otherwise peaceful humans into defenders of their turf, warriors for the team, protectors of pride. All opposition must be dealt with (because clearly it was the other fans’ fault the home team lost). In a split second, a beverage is thrown, quickly followed by a flurry of punches and kicks. Mere seconds later, one person is unconscious, bleeding on the ground, while screaming, fleeing, and panic ensue.
This type of scenario has unfolded with disturbing regularity at professional sporting events. Perhaps it has always happened, but video cameras on cellphones, 24-hour sports coverage, and social media have shed more light on these fan brawls in recent years, taking a story from a blurb in the sports section of a local newspaper to an in-your-face can’t look away reality. This article will briefly provide an overview of some of the documented incidents of fan violence in recent years, examine the strategies in place for helping to curtail or minimize these incidents, and review several negligence cases brought against stadium owners related to fan violence.
A Review of Violent Incidents Among Sport Spectators
Unfortunately, this is not an exhaustive review of violent behaviors among sports fans. Furthermore, it does not take into account riots and public damage, or other less than desirable actions by sports fans. Families and individuals should be able to attend a sporting event and expect a peaceful entertaining experience. However, this is not always the case. Belligerent and disruptive fan behavior occurs whenever competition is present. Ever since the chariot races of the Romans, fans have clashed with one another (Barker, 2016). Highly identified fans take losses and perceived unfair calls more to heart than more casual fans. While alcohol is not always a culprit in violent fan behaviors (and should not be used as a catch-all scapegoat for poor choices made by adults), it is a key contributor.
Many fights have taken place where shoving, punching, and tackling occur in the stands at professional sporting events. Regardless of who is around or who may be an innocent bystander, fans seem to view the moment worthy of the consequence. Many of the following incidents discussed were caught on camera and are retrieved from the online sports publication Bleacher Report (Lee, 2012). In 2006, a fight broke out between a Giants fan and an A’s fan. Punches were thrown, both men ended up on the ground, and security eventually arrived to try and stop the fight. Others began to fight as well during this initial skirmish. In 2007, a Giants fan and a Packers fan traded words before a finger is put into a face and a punch is thrown with a woman in between the two men. Fans can be heard asking “where is security” on film.
In 2008, the upper section of a Raiders home game was host to a massive brawl. Even when police arrived, sucker punches were still being thrown. In 2009, a brawl between Yankee and Red Sox fans took place in the stands. People can be heard cheering the violence and it takes 38 seconds from the start of the video (when punches are already flying) for a security officer to arrive. Again in 2009, Eagles and Giants fans begin trash talking in the stands (very close to the field) when punches start flying. It is unclear if security ever came, as the altercation eventually dies down without anyone being removed. In 2010, a younger man is seen arguing with a woman and both eventually sit down. An older man comes and confronts the younger fan and grabs him around the neck, at which point both fall down the stairs. Fans can be heard yelling for security (none arrive for over one minute). Several people state, “You never expect that here” to which another fan states, “Yeah, but you still have to have them (security).”
Transitioning from fights in the stands that resulted in bruised cheeks and broken egos to more serious altercations, we see that what starts as chest puffing and minor scuffling can turn catastrophic very quickly. In 2011, Brian Stow was brutally attacked and beaten by Dodgers fans while leaving a Los Angeles Dodgers game. As a result of the attack, Stow suffered severe brain damage, and it was reported that 72 Dodgers fans were arrested on that day (Gutman, Hopper, & Ghebremedhin, 2011). Stow eventually recouped some damages after the Dodgers organization (along with his attackers) was found liable for his injuries (Knoll & Kim, 2014). While the Dodgers claimed that Stow was also partly responsible for the incident (citing his blood alcohol level at 0.18 percent), the courts eventually ruled in Stow’s favor (USA Today, 2014), with the Dodgers 25 percent liable and responsible for $13.9 million (Fitzpatrick, 2015).
In 2011, two men were found shot in a parking lot of Candlestick Park at a game between the 49ers and the Raiders. At the same game, a man was found severely beaten and unconscious in an upper deck restroom, suffering from life-threatening injuries (CBS San Francisco, 2011). Also in 2011, a fight between fans broke out at another 49ers-Raiders game. Video shows one fan choking another fan until he was unconscious then dropping him onto his face on the concrete. A video of a fight between Ravens and Chiefs fans shows punches thrown with one person ending unconscious on the concrete (Lee, 2012). The senseless violence does not stop there. In 2015, a man was in line to use a urinal in a bathroom at a 49ers game when another man nudged him on the shoulder and pointed to an open urinal. At that point, the attacker became verbally aggressive and sucker punched the victim repeatedly, causing him to fall unconscious. When the victim’s cousin tried to intervene, the attacker’s cousin also joined in the beating (Griswold, 2015). In 2016, Ravens fan Joseph Bauer (age 55) suffered a brain injury after he was beaten in the stands at a Raiders game. Two Raiders fans were arrested and charged with the assault (Barker, 2016). In 2018, an assault took place outside Levi’s Stadium at a 49ers-Cardinals game, which resulted in a man being hospitalized (Tehee, 2018).
The most recent example of fan violence resulting in serious injury occurred after a Dodgers-Diamondbacks game on March 29, 2019. Following the game, Rafael Reyna had an argument with his attacker which resulted in Reyna being punched and knocked unconscious to the concrete. Reyna suffered a fractured skull and was placed on life support (AP, Knight, & McDade, 2019). From individual incidents to broad statistics, the NFL had 669 arrests inside football stadiums and 477 outside of its stadiums (Barker, 2016). While it is impossible to state how many of these were related to violent acts, given the preceding review, it is clear that fan behavior at sporting events is an issue that needs addressing.
Strategies to Prevent Violent Incidents
What is being done? Security camera networks (both inside and outside of stadiums), security complaint hotlines, training for security and attendant personnel, undercover officers wearing team jerseys of both teams, instituting additional holding cells for key rivalry games and cutting off alcohol sales after the third quarter are current strategies implemented by many sport stadiums (Berg, 2018; McCormack, 2018). While these measures are standard procedure and help to stem much violence, there are obviously still incidents that slip through the security cracks.
What else can be done? Sports stadiums can institute harsher consequences than are currently in place. The NFL does have a temporary ban policy, in which a fan ejected for disruptive behavior must enroll in (and complete) a fan-conduct-awareness class and submit a request to have the ban lifted (Milligen, 2015). Perhaps a lifetime ban should be instituted for disruptive behavior. Consequences can force fans to think twice about their choices (says DiNuzio — former NFL Director of strategic security, as cited in Milligen, 2015). More security personnel (both undercover and in uniform) will always be a beneficial strategy. For well-known rivalry games, security should be doubled. As observed from the previous review, some matchups tend to have more violent incidents than others (e.g., 49ers and Raiders games). Often it is not so much a matter of being alerted of a brewing altercation as it the proximity to the location. With more security personnel dispersed evenly throughout the stadiums, incidents can be addressed before they get out of hand. Concerning leaving the stadium (where many assaults take place), security officers and police should be visible from the exit of the stadium to the exit of the parking lot. Knowing eyes are on the spectators can help to curtail this violence. Well-lit parking lots are another vital strategy.
Perhaps a more radical strategy could be to institute alcohol sales measures that track the number of beverages purchased by individuals. While there are always ways to cheat this type of system (e.g., having a friend or family member purchase alcohol for a patron), this will put a limit on the total number of beverages that are distributed in the stands. There have been complete bans of alcohol and tailgating in the past (although they were never enforced for long; Fitzpatrick, 2015). Finally, Safe Place Statutes (like those in Wisconsin) impose more stringent standard of care than that found under common law negligence, thus forcing stadium owners to spend more money on extra security personnel (Swenson, 2012). If more states adopted this, we might see fan security weighed more heavily.
Negligence Suits Brought Against Stadium Owners in Recent Years
Since the Stow negligence suit, multiple acts of violence have occurred at professional sport stadiums that have resulted in legal action. In 2015, Ariel Auffant filed a lawsuit against the Dodgers and his assailants, citing negligence, negligent supervision, and negligent hiring (Loc, 2017). In 2011, Daniel Long and Gabriel Navarrette filed suit against the 49ers, the NFL, and the Candlestick Park parking lot security company, again citing negligence and failure to provide a safe event (Atkinson, 2012). More recently, a $1 million lawsuit against the Dallas Cowboys was filed by a fan who was severely beaten at a game in 2016. Michael Kennedy and his wife M’Kale are suing the Cowboys’ organization for negligence after they were harassed and eventually assaulted by Eagles fans. The Cowboys organization claims that the aisle attendants tried to radio for security, but their radios were not working (Berg, 2018; Haaf, 2018).
Sport stadium owners must do a better job of protecting their patrons. Perhaps when their financial bottom line is hurt by negligence suits they will take more drastic measures to minimize alcohol abuse and remove problematic fans quickly from the premises.
Rosselli can be reached at 
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