By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 2008
The parking lots surrounding FedEx Field were filled with fans sitting on folding chairs and lounging under tents they had put up near their vehicles. They tossed footballs and tailgated for hours before the Washington Redskins' first home preseason game last month. Food was being grilled and alcohol was being consumed, in some cases lots of it.
A couple of hours before kickoff against the Buffalo Bills, a man riding on the back of a cart that was encircling the stadium let out a yell and raised a cup and a half-full liquor bottle. Two men walking on the adjacent sidewalk witnessed the scene, and one turned to the other and said, "The game hasn't even started yet and they're already drunk."
Moments earlier, a family had made its way toward a gate, with Shawn Money carrying one of his three children atop his shoulders while the two others walked ahead of him and his wife, Deborah. The parents wondered if they were doing the right thing by bringing the kids -- ages 8, 7 and almost 2 -- to a game.
"It always gets worse after halftime," Deborah said. "Everyone is good in the beginning, and then the beers add up."
The National Football League, with annual revenue approaching $8 billion, has become the most popular professional sports league in the country in part because of the zealousness of its young-adult male fans, many of whom spend hours before games tailgating and drinking before going inside stadiums to be loud and boisterous. This season, however, the NFL is asking itself whether the rowdiness has gone too far and is alienating other fans.
At the behest of Commissioner Roger Goodell, all 32 teams have announced a fan conduct policy in an attempt to make their stadiums more fan-friendly. Goodell said he believes fans should be able to watch without being subjected to abusive language, obscene gestures and other forms of rude behavior.
"We look at the issue of our in-stadium experience as something that is critically important," Goodell said. "We think that the experience can be improved. We are going to be working with our clubs to improve that. We want everyone to be able to come to our stadiums and behave properly."
The Money family and others are waiting to see how successful the new policy will be, knowing that the real test comes now that the regular season is underway.
"It's my first year bringing the kids," Shawn Money said. "I've come with my buddies and you always wondered if you could bring the kids. I was just saying to my wife, 'I wonder how they'll enforce it.' "
Some fans say they already have had enough. Dick Meyer, the editorial director for digital media at National Public Radio, wrote an op-ed piece for The Washington Post in December. It was about going to the Redskins' game against the Chicago Bears last season at FedEx Field and knowing within 10 minutes of kickoff that he'd made "a terrible mistake" by taking along his 13-year-old son. He described being surrounded by drunken fans who were obscene and menacing.
"There simply was no code of conduct, no social superego, that discouraged this behavior, even around children," Meyer wrote. "Worse, some people were there precisely to get drunk, angry, loud and vile. The idea that fans would have manners or courtesy in any form seems archaic and silly."
Meyer, who subsequently appeared on a report on fan behavior on HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel," vowed never to attend another NFL game.
Meyer said the response to his written and televised comments was overwhelming. "Anybody who spoke to me face to face agreed with me," he said by telephone last week. "Many, many people said they'd stopped going to football games or sporting events in general. Nobody came up to me and vociferously disagreed with me. The people who commented anonymously, through phone messages or e-mail or some other electronic means, were mostly against me: 'It's my money and my ticket and I'll go and do what I want.'
"It really was stunning. I had been writing controversial columns for seven or eight years, and this was the only time I've ever been called at home. It's like the right to be drunk and belligerent is a fundamental freedom of speech."
Redskins fans were featured prominently in the HBO segment early this year, which depicted scenes of excessive alcohol consumption and unruly behavior by NFL fans in stadium parking lots. Last November, the New York Times published a story about a halftime ritual of New York Jets fans, in which hundreds of men would stand along the ramps at one gate at Giants Stadium and chant crudely at women to expose their breasts. Video clips of the ritual had been posted online on YouTube.
Some say the reports on the Jets fans' behavior prompted the NFL to act.
"It is a very delicate balancing act," said David Carter, the executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. "The NFL is trying to protect its brand. If they're perceived as stripping all the personality out of the game and the fans, they're in trouble. . . . On the other hand, no one wants to be subjected to poor behavior by those people who can't control themselves."
Goodell's two-year tenure as commissioner has been marked by get-tough policies on several issues. This crackdown was preceded by others regarding players' off-field conduct and cheating by teams.
The owner of one NFL team, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he had not discussed the matter directly with Goodell, said he thought the league was spurred to action in large part because of embarrassment over the negative publicity surrounding the Gate D ritual at Jets games.
When he announced at the conclusion of an owners' meeting in May that the league would enact a fan conduct policy, Goodell said input from fans, including complaints from those who'd had bad experiences, precipitated the policy.
On the evening of the Redskins-Bills preseason game, Matt Hutchison of Ashburn walked past the tailgaters toward FedEx Field with his 3- and 6-year-old sons a couple of hours before kickoff.
"There's a lot of drunk people," he said. "It's not really a family environment. I hesitated to bring the kids, but we got extra tickets this year and I thought I'd try it."
He was asked if he thought the new policy would change the environment in the stands. "I'm hopeful," he said. "But I'm also a realist. I don't know how much it's gonna change."
Other parents at the game said they'd never found the rowdiness in the stands at games to be overly offensive.
Michael Berry of Rockville said it was "not a big issue, not at all" and added, "I don't know how much you can control."
He was walking toward the stadium with his 7-year-old son, who was wearing a Redskins jersey and tossing a football into the air. "It gets a little out of hand, with the profanities and the gestures," Berry said. "You do have to explain some things to him. [But] he knows what words he can and cannot say."
The Redskins outlined their fan code of conduct in a letter to season ticket holders that said the team is "committed to creating a safe, comfortable and enjoyable experience for all of our guests."
Redskins spokesman Zack Bolno said: "We make it a priority to review our code of conduct each season. We continue to look for ways to ensure that our fans have a safe and enjoyable experience at Redskins games."
Redskins season ticket holders were asked in the team's letter to "always treat your fellow fans in a courteous and respectful manner. This includes refraining from foul or abusive language, obscene gestures, fighting, taunting, inappropriate and obscene signs or clothing, or threatening remarks and gestures."
The letter also included extensive instructions regarding alcohol consumption, urging fans to act responsibly and including advice such as "sip your drink, don't guzzle it." The letter was addressed as being from both the team and Diageo, the alcoholic beverage manufacturer that was described as being one of the franchise's longtime sponsors.
Bolno said violators of the policy at FedEx Field could be subject to having their season tickets revoked.
Goodell, who attended an NFL game as a fan last season with his 13-year-old niece, said at the owners' meeting in May: "It's very possible, and likely, that people can come to a game and enjoy alcoholic beverages or beer and do it very responsibly. What we don't want is there to be abusive behavior. That includes foul language. That includes disrupting other people who are there to enjoy the game. We're just saying, 'Come and enjoy yourself, but don't ruin it for others.' "
Staff writer Dan Steinberg contributed to this report.