Should the NFL do more to control crowd behavior at games?

To follow is an excerpt from the January 29, 2010 issue of CQ Researcher on "Professional Football" by Kenneth Jost.

The Green Bay Packers boast some of the hardiest, loudest and most dedicated fans of any of the NFL's 32 teams. So when the longtime rival Minnesota Vikings came to Lambeau Field on Nov. 1 — led by former Packers quarterback Brett Favre — emotions ran high.

By the time the Vikings left Green Bay with a 38-26 victory, some 43 fans had been ejected from the 70,000-seat stadium; an additional 13 were arrested for disorderly conduct or marijuana or alcohol offenses. Leaguewide, teams average about three arrests and 25 ejections per game, according to Jeffrey Miller, the NFL's director of strategic security programs.

The rowdiness of some fans is one of the commonly heard complaints about NFL games. Families with children in particular often complain about fans' use of vulgar and obscene language within close earshot of youngsters. John Wallace, a Washington Redskins fan from Largo, Md., recently told a WJLA-TV reporter: “Spilling beer on me, people hollering, people pushing us — pushing my kids. It was terrible. I didn't want to go to no more games.” [Footnote 10]

As for the high crowd noise at NFL games, fans and teams themselves view the cacophony as part of the game. Broadcasters routinely refer to the crowd as the “12th man” at particularly noisy arenas. “The noise is intended to disrupt the [opposing team's] offense,” says Hans Steiniger, a super-fan who lives just outside Detroit and has visited all the NFL stadiums. [Footnote 11]

Steiniger says Buffalo Bills fans are rightly viewed as among the unruliest in the league. When he went to Charlotte, N.C., for a Bills-Carolina Panthers game, he saw Bills partisans “harassing” an elderly Panthers fan. “I was embarrassed to be a Bills fan,” Steiniger says. Fans in the Northeast and Midwest generally are more obstreperous than those in the South and West, he says, with one notable exception: the rowdy fans of the Oakland Raiders.

League officials are well aware of the complaints about disruptive crowds and claim progress over the past several years in policing fan behavior. “We know that in general the atmosphere has improved,” says NFL spokesman Aiello.

The league's initiatives include commissioner Goodell's issuance of a “Code of Fan Conduct” in August 2008, which prohibits, among other things, “unruly, disruptive, or illegal” behavior; “drunkenness” resulting in “irresponsible” behavior; and “foul or abusive language or obscene gestures.” The code also proscribes “verbal or physical” harassment of opposing teams' fans.

At the league's urging, individual teams are now using technology to facilitate enforcement of the rules by inviting fans to text complaints about unruly behavior from their seats to stadium security forces. “That's been working very well,” Aiello says. In Green Bay, Packers spokesman Aaron Popkey says texted complaints are “picking up.” Separately, the league is also trying to cut down on alcohol-related problems by calling on teams to limit to three-and-a-half hours the time available for pregame “tailgating” — the grilling and guzzling fests in stadium parking lots viewed by many fans as an essential warm-up for the game. Unlike complaint-texting, the recommended tailgating rule is not going down well with fans or teams.

By the end of the 2009 season, only the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers had set the league-recommended three-and-a-half-hour limit on tailgating. The Chiefs' limit was long-standing; the Bucs set their limit after the NFL guidelines came out. Fans in many places criticized the policy, saying cutting the time for tailgating would do little to control excessive drinking. “Tailgating is what makes the game unique,” Steiniger says. “As long as fans are responsible in how they consume and distribute alcohol, tailgating has a place in the NFL.” [Footnote 12]

Steiniger thinks stadium security officials need to be stricter in enforcing rules within arenas. “The way to change the culture of the stadium is to identify these idiots and eject them,” Steiniger says.

Longtime football observers MacCambridge and Oriard stress, however, that misbehavior at NFL games pales in comparison to the frequent chaos at soccer games around the world. “You're not going to get 80,000 people to come out for a football game and not use profanity,” MacCambridge says.

Oriard says the NFL could hurt itself by clamping down too hard. “The NFL wants families to enjoy games, but the NFL also wants wildly enthusiastic fans,” he says. “It wants cameras to be able to pan the crowd and find wild and crazy fans.”

The Issues
* Should the National Football League do more to protect players?
* Should the NFL do more to control crowd behavior at games?
* Should the NFL do more to limit “showboating” by players?

For more information see the CQ Researcher report on "Professional Football" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Researcher PDF.

[10] “Texting Program Helps Redskins Calm Unruly Crowds,” Sept. 18, 2009.
[11] See The NFL's 32 teams play in 31 stadiums because the New York Giants and New York Jets shared the former Giants Stadium, which stood just across the river from New York City in the Meadowlands, N.J. The stadium was demolished at the end of the 2009 season; the Giants and Jets will begin sharing a new arena, Meadowlands Stadium, in the 2010 season.
[12] See Michael McCarthy, “NFL's crackdown on fans gets tough; Some fans — and teams — resist tailgating limits,” USA Today, Nov. 19, 2009, p. 1A.