By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 21, 2005
Up in one of the nosebleed sections at FedEx Field yesterday, a man watched the game wearing a sweat shirt reading: "[Expletive] the Refs." With him was a little boy, maybe 5.
A few rows in front of them, two guys in Washington Redskins jerseys greeted every referee call against the team by shooting their arms into the air, middle fingers extended.
One man was so wobbly by the second quarter that he toppled forward two rows, spilling beer on Leslie Weightman of Gaithersburg and digging his knee into the back of her husband, Jim. And leather-lung louts screamed obscenities against the Oakland Raiders until their voices were almost shot.
A scuffle broke out a couple of sections over. Prince George's County police and yellow-jacketed stadium security personnel, a dozen or so in all, had to climb to the top rows of the stadium to separate two clashing groups of fans -- men and women, Raiders fans and Redskins fans. They ejected four.
At least there was no knockdown, drag-out fight as there was at the game against the San Francisco 49ers a few weeks ago, when a half-dozen fans slugged it out, bodies flailing and falling like dominoes. It took police 10 minutes to come to the aid of an overwhelmed usher.
At FedEx Field and football stadiums throughout the National Football League, some fans are disgusted with the obnoxious behavior in the stands, particularly by alcohol-fueled spectators. It has become so bad that some are turning to television as a safer, less harrowing way to watch the game.
Beth Gourley, a 45-year-old Vienna resident, has held Redskins season tickets since 1963, but two years ago, she and her mother stopped going to games.
"People are hammered, the language is horrible and the ushers can't seem to do anything about it," Gourley said. "We're not beer drinkers -- we come to watch the game -- but the stadium caters to beer drinkers."
Certainly the rowdies and the boors are a fraction of the thousands of fans at FedEx Field -- a small city's worth -- and elsewhere, but they're enough to have changed the spectating culture into something resembling a World Wrestling Entertainment event. Bob Warren, a Redskins season ticket holder since the 1960s, has sold four of his six season passes. He says he has noticed a worsening in the past five years or so. "It's not the same friendly atmosphere it used to be," the 55-year-old Fairfax optometrist said. "The rowdiness and the language is definitely different."
Many disgruntled fans blame what Laurie Lieber of the California-based Marin Institute calls "an alcohol-saturated society" that seems synonymous with big-time sports these days.
"People have come to expect and accept the blanketing of alcohol promotion around sports," said Lieber, whose nonprofit public advocacy group considers alcohol abuse a public-health issue. She cited the increased signage at NFL stadiums, the ubiquitous TV commercials for beer and the bars and restaurants built into stadiums.
Lieber also noted the increase in tailgating. The practice has been around for years, but its popularity has skyrocketed in the past decade or so. Although teams encourage tailgating for the camaraderie and team spirit it promotes, it also makes drinking a day-long event. As Prince George's police Lt. Terence Sheppard said, "The longer people have to drink and socialize, the more problems we anticipate."
The FedEx parking lot gates opened at 9 a.m. yesterday, and Charles Tomasch, Gina Manke and Kristin Bromberg, among about a dozen twenty-something friends, had staked out a place for their venerable Volkswagen, its trunk outfitted with a barbecue grill, and a old Chevy van, both spray-painted burgundy and gold.
"It's the greatest day of the week. We call it Redskins Van Day," said Manke, 21, a paralegal from Fredericksburg. The happy tailgaters were "shotgunning" beer -- puncturing cans to propel beer down their throats.
A couple of rows over was a huge contingent of Raiders fans. Stadium personnel around the league, particularly on the West Coast, go on high alert when the Raiders come calling. Proud of their reputation as the rowdiest fans in the NFL, a reputation challenged only by their counterparts in Philadelphia, they were loud, boisterous and decked out in their Goth-style black-and-silver masks, face paint and regalia.
For Raiders and Redskins fans, alcohol was flowing freely hours before kickoff. For the Marin Institute's Lieber, that's a real concern.
"Increased availability leads to increased consumption, which leads to increased problems," she said. "Some people never make it to the game. Others leave when sales are stopped inside the stadium so they can get to an off-site bar and not have to stop drinking."
Christian M. End, a psychology professor at Xavier University in Chicago and a founder of the Sports Fan Research Group, is not sure whether misbehavior is increasing or whether the glut of sporting events gives the appearance of a trend.
Alcohol consumption is a factor, End said, but not the only one. "Exposure to aggressive stimuli" -- loud noise, overcrowding, invasion of personal space -- increases the likelihood of rowdiness, End said, and the more aggressive the sport is, the more likely a person is to act aggressively.
"When we watch others who are being rewarded for their violence and aggression, we want to act the same way," he said.
End and other sports psychologists point to "deindividuation" -- fans in a crowd lose their inhibitions, their sense of personal responsibility. And alcohol consumption decreases inhibition even more.Incidents Elsewhere
FedEx Field has so far avoided anything like the brawl that broke out in Auburn Hills, Mich., last season in an NBA game between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons. The Redskins' most notorious incident occurred two years ago when, during a game with the Philadelphia Eagles, a Prince George's officer used pepper spray to break up a fight. The spray wafted over the Eagles' bench. No arrests were made because the boozing brawlers stopped throwing punches and blended into the crowd.
Professional football's so-called culture of intoxication has had much worse. In January, a New Jersey jury awarded $135 million to the family of Antonia Verni, who as a 2-year-old in 1999 was paralyzed from the neck down in a car crash caused by a drunk driver who had just left a New York Giants game. The jury found that the stadium concessionaire, Aramark Corp., irresponsibly sold beer to the driver.
According to testimony, Aramark vendors ignored state law and the company's policy by selling six beers to Daniel Lanzaro, 34, even though he was visibly drunk. The Verni family was driving home from picking pumpkins when a pickup driven by Lanzaro slammed into their car about 10 minutes from Giants Stadium.
The family sued Aramark, the NFL, the Giants and the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority, which owns Giants Stadium. The judge dismissed all parties but Aramark, which was assessed $105 million in compensatory and punitive damages. Lanzaro, who is serving a five-year prison term for vehicular assault, was assessed $30 million.
Aramark, which is appealing, is party to another beer-and-ball-related lawsuit, this one in Denver, where Jeff Black, a 37-year-old resident of the Longmont suburb, is suing the company and the Colorado Rockies for what happened to him and his son at a 2004 baseball game.
Three men, sloppily drunk, stumbled into seats behind them and began loudly spewing obscenities. "I've been going to sporting events for 30 years," Black said, "and this was the worst I've ever seen." He endured it for a while, then quietly asked them to stop, noting that he had his 9-year-old son with him. The men leaned over and menaced them.
Black found an usher. One of the men had fled, stumbling up the stairs, and the usher followed him. But minutes later, the man returned with a full cup of beer. Black flagged the same usher, who told the men to leave.
One of the men came back yet again and dumped a cup of beer over the heads of Black and his son. Again the usher hustled the man out, but another of the men returned and doused the Blacks with more beer. "All hell broke loose," Black recalled.
Four or five fans flew out of their seats and tackled the man in the aisle. "These full-grown men were beating him to the ground, beating this guy with their fists," Black recalled. "It was scary."
The two men who attacked the Blacks were convicted of assault, fined, given suspended sentences and ordered to perform community service. Black is asking that the Rockies implement a five-year plan to monitor alcohol sales and provide adequate security. He also wants to be awarded damages.Rules for Consumption
The Redskins' concessionaire is Centerplate, based in Spartanburg, S.C., which handles nine other NFL teams and six Major Leage Baseball teams. Gael Doar, a spokeswoman for Centerplate, said her company is aware of what happened in Denver and has used the incident to review its polices and training for FedEx Field personnel. Those polices include checking identification for anyone buying alcohol who looks younger than 30, enforcing a four-beer limit, refusing to sell to anyone who appears intoxicated and adhering to the NFL-mandated halt to beer sales at the end of the third quarter.
Redskins spokesman Karl Swanson said: "We rely totally on Centerplate. Our approach is, 'Tell us what to do, and we'll do it.' "
George Hacker, a lawyer and public health expert who directs the Alcohol Policies Project for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, would like to see more stringent controls. He believes stadiums shouldn't start beer service before kickoff. "That is a principal problem," he said. "Even though concessionaires do the best job they can, they have a bunch of drunken louts to deal with, even before the beginning of the game."
He recommends limiting the size of containers. "Some stadiums serve 24-ounce beer, which is really two beers," he pointed out, "and they sell two at a time. That's four beers."
Stadiums also could serve low-alcohol beers, he suggested, and, in addition to limiting the number of beers a person can buy, they should provide bracelets or cards to prevent concession-stand shopping. "They should stop hawking in the stands, which makes ID-checking difficult," Hacker said. "If you're sitting in the middle of a row, you're not going to pass your driver's license 10 seats down; it just doesn't work.
"They should eliminate beer signs all over the stadium. At RFK and MCI, every exit has a beer sign over it, so the first thing you're thinking about is having a beer."
And he said: "Police in the stands should be much more aggressively looking for people who are obviously intoxicated."
Police and security had a relatively easy time of it yesterday, certainly easier than the Redskins' beleaguered offense. A handful of people had to be ejected from the stadium, Sheppard reported, and only a couple ended up in the holding facility the police department maintains in the building. They faced disorderly conduct charges. He's seen as many as a half-dozen held during a game.
"Alcohol and trash talking," one of his fellow officers commented, shortly after helping break up a third-quarter scuffle. "Put the two together, and that's what happens."