Earlier this month, Joe Bauer and his wife, Sharon, went to M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore to watch the Ravens play the Oakland Raiders. During the second half, they were walking on an exit ramp when, according to a Baltimore police report, an argument turned into a full-blown altercation; a Raiders fan punched Bauer, a 55-year-old Ravens season ticket holder, and Bauer fell and hit his head.
Bauer suffered a brain injury and was initially given a 30 percent chance to survive. Though he has since improved, a relative said, his family is uncertain he ever will be the same.
While the National Football League is more popular than ever, expected this year to set a record by surpassing $13 billion in revenue, it faces potent threats to its dominance over the American sports landscape: declining television ratings, an inconsistent response to incidents of domestic abuse involving players and continuing worries about player safety. But an equally alarming threat is unruly fan behavior in and around NFL stadiums. It has some in the league concerned that it is driving fans to stay away.
“If you are concerned about bringing your family to a game, then that is an issue,” said Amy Trask, a former executive with the Raiders who has served on the NFL’s security committee. “It’s not just an issue for one team; it’s an issue for all 32 teams. The teams know this. The league knows this.”
The NFL has made significant efforts in recent years to improve the climate inside its stadiums by identifying trouble spots and providing its franchises with guidelines for creating a friendlier atmosphere. But it is having only limited success and may be pushing the problem of unsavory fan behavior from stadiums to the parking lots.
Although arrest totals fluctuate year to year, they have trended slightly upward on a per-game basis since 2011, according to a Washington Post examination of police data from the past five seasons. Last year, 6.34 arrests per game were reported league-wide during the 17 weeks of the regular season. In the 10th week of the season, 126 arrests were made — the second-highest total during the five-year period. That was the most since 129 arrests were made in Week 14 of 2012.
The data assembled by The Post provides a snapshot of the factors the NFL and local law enforcement see as bellwethers for fan trouble. Division contests and night games result in considerably more fan arrests, according to records collected from city, county and state police jurisdictions that oversee security at NFL stadiums. The later the kickoff, the greater the likelihood of arrests, the data shows. Of the 15 games the past five seasons with the most arrests, a combined 705, nine of those contests began at 4 p.m. or later.
When division games are played at night, arrests are twice as high as early-afternoon non-division contests; the league and its network broadcast partners often schedule these division rivalry games in prime time.
If the home team loses, no matter the opponent or scheduled kickoff time, arrests increase. The closer the loss, the more arrests tend to rise.
The Post used public records laws to obtain data from 29 of the 31 jurisdictions with a stadium (the New York Giants and New York Jets share MetLife Stadium in New Jersey). Authorities in Cleveland and New Orleans did not provide documents despite repeated requests. To provide further context, The Post visited stadiums and interviewed more than two dozen NFL and law enforcement officials.
Officials at NFL headquarters dispute that games are unsafe or any perception that stadiums are anything but family-friendly. Behind the scenes, however, the league puts a high priority on controlling fan behavior and identifying possible trouble spots. Certain venues seem to be hotbeds for police activity, particularly in parking lots, where oversight is not regulated by the league office and where alcohol consumption goes largely unmonitored.
The data shows per-game arrests over the past five seasons were highest at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, where police instituted stricter policies in 2013 following a violent parking lot brawl that involved thrown glass bottles. Following San Diego, where police made 24.58 arrests per game between 2011 and 2015, were the stadiums in New York (21.96 arrests per game), Oakland (17.78) and Pittsburgh (16.75). The NFL sees high arrest numbers at its stadiums in San Diego, New York and Pittsburgh as byproducts of those franchises’ zero-tolerance policies; Oakland, though, is continually on the league's radar, along with San Francisco, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Philadelphia.
But the potential for trouble is hardly confined to those sites. Last October, a man was shot outside a Dallas Cowboys game at A&T Stadium and later died. A year earlier, a man at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., home of the 49ers, was beaten so badly, his attorney said, the man now suffers from permanent seizure activity. In 2013, a 30-year-old man was beaten to death in the parking lot at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium.
Last November, Matthew Davis attended a Raiders game in Oakland with his girlfriend and two family members. On their way out, a Raiders fan approached Davis from behind and punched him so hard he would require a CT scan. The reason: Davis was wearing a Jets jersey.
“A jungle,” said Davis, 30, who said he was unlikely to return to Oakland Coliseum. “People are just in your ear; you’re just being harassed the whole time.”
Those are just among the most high-profile incidents in recent years. Not all incidents lead to arrests, and much more common are verbal and physical jousting among fans, drunkenness and a general climate of boorishness.
The league’s stadiums in Seattle, Chicago, Tampa and Houston tallied the fewest arrests the past five seasons, averaging one arrest or fewer per game. FedEx Field in Landover, which averages about 2.7 arrests at each Redskins game, ranked in the middle; M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, where arrests average 1.5 per game, is in the bottom half, according to data compiled by The Post.
Three jurisdictions — Atlanta, Detroit and Minneapolis — provided arrests only for inside the stadiums. But incidents still happen at those venues, which underscores the problem as those in and around the league see it: Teams and law enforcement are largely uncertain when or where trouble might arise, often leading to a reactive approach.
“Whatever has to be done will be done,” Ravens Coach John Harbaugh told reporters after the incident in Baltimore this month. “We’re a family. It’s a family atmosphere.”
In 2008, when Jeffrey Miller traveled to Oakland to attend his first Monday night game as the NFL’s new head of security, he saw something familiar — though not at all family-friendly.
“I’ve been in actual prison riots,” said Miller, a former Pennsylvania state police commissioner who in the spring stepped down after eight years in the NFL league office to take a job with a private security firm in California. He was replaced in August by former Washington police chief Cathy L. Lanier. “I looked around me, and I saw so many people getting tased by police right outside the venue, it was unbelievable.
“I looked around and said: We have got to change this environment.”
In Miller’s first months on the job, he visited stadiums and sometimes couldn’t believe what he saw, most notably in the parking lots outside. He watched a fan punch a police officer at one facility, and at another tailgaters walked past portable toilets to relieve themselves in the woods.
Some fans, already visibly drunk upon arrival, were welcomed onto stadium property; there, they went on performing keg stands and draining shots from bowling balls. Many staggered into the stadium for the game.
“Tailgating has changed in our lifetimes,” said Lou Marciani, the director of the University of Southern Mississippi’s National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security. “They open up so early, and by the time the game starts, [fans] are wiped out.”
Each year, the NFL invites four officials from each team, often including franchise owners, to attend the league’s security training seminar. Miller distributed his annual report of how each team handled security, issuing “grades” for each organization: a “1” was the best score, and a “4” amounted to a failing grade.
There was some fluctuation, but year after year, the same teams seemed to over- and underachieve. In an interview, Miller wouldn’t reveal how he graded teams, but one individual who saw the reports said New England, Arizona, New York and Carolina consistently received top marks; Buffalo, Cincinnati, Oakland and San Francisco often were among the teams needing improvement.
The NFL has instituted a league-wide “code of conduct” and a list of “best practices” for stadium security over the past eight years. It also has established text messaging lines for fans to anonymously report bad behavior, leading to fewer incidents inside stadiums. Facilities paid closer attention at entry gates to inebriated fans, sometimes turning them away, and many teams instituted a zero-tolerance policy for smoking, profanity or fighting. If someone is ejected, he or she is barred from buying tickets — at least through league-approved channels — until they pass a $250 conduct exam and petition the team, in writing, for permission for return.
The NFL says arrests inside stadiums decreased by 32 percent from 2014 to 2015 and that fan ejections also were down. But fan behavior in parking lots, it acknowledges, is another matter. The NFL said there were nearly 500 arrests in stadium lots last season, a 6 percent increase over 2014. For the most part, data collected by The Post did not differentiate between arrests made inside and outside stadiums.
“We see very few incidents, but one incident is too much,” said Brian McCarthy, a spokesman in the NFL league office. “We do recognize that, and it’s something we take very seriously.”
The NFL does not regulate when parking lots open and close, and the ability to cut loose before games is part of the appeal for many fans. Several teams allow cars through gates as early as five hours before kickoff; some franchises allow tailgaters to spend all day in the lots, regardless of whether they hold game tickets. Most lots at FedEx Field open four hours before kickoff, though its “Red Zone” tailgating lot opens five hours prior.
“You’ve created this multi-acre bar, but you don’t have any real bouncers out there,” said William Carr, a Kansas City-area attorney who in July filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Chiefs.
Three years ago, 30-year-old Kyle Van Winkle attended a game with a group before leaving Arrowhead Stadium. He wandered into the parking lot and climbed into the wrong vehicle. Carr, who in his complaint cited at least 60 violent incidents on stadium property between 2000 and 2013, said a group of tailgaters — none of whom possessed game tickets, he said — assaulted Van Winkle. Van Winkle was knocked unconscious and propped up on a nearby bus; a short time later he was found not breathing and was pronounced dead at a hospital.
The lawsuit alleges the Chiefs fostered a party atmosphere without adequate security; Carr has alleged that during the altercation, onlookers went looking for help but couldn’t locate security. In an answer filed in August, the Chiefs denied responsibility.
As an early December weekend began in 2014, one matchup on the schedule had the NFL on high alert. All 32 teams were playing in Week 14 of the season, though only two of the matchups were division games.
A man at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego was arrested for urinating or defecating in public, a Cincinnati law officer was assaulted at Paul Brown Stadium, and a man at Lambeau Field in Green Bay was arrested and found to have a blood alcohol content of 0.307, a level so high it can be fatal. Washington’s FedEx Field had two arrests for disorderly conduct and another for theft.
But another scheduled contest had caused concern within the NFL for months: San Francisco at Oakland. The previous time the two Bay Area teams met, a 2011 preseason game across the bay at Candlestick Park, there had been so much violence that the league indefinitely suspended the annual exhibition between the rival franchises. A man had been beaten in the parking lot until he was unconscious, and a friend trying to rescue him was shot four times. Multiple brawls broke out inside the stadium and across its sprawling property.
“It’s rough out there,” said Bill Smith, a Bay Area attorney who has sued the 49ers on behalf of the man who suffered a brain injury in an assault at Levi’s Stadium in 2014. “It’s alcohol and bravado, and when you add gang activity, which we have, it’s a deadly combination.”
A troubling reality for the NFL, according to arrest data provided to The Post, is that it is difficult to know when and where trouble will occur. Week 10 last year was the worst week of the 2015 season, in which an average of 9.7 arrests were made at stadiums across the NFL. One week later was the best, recording an average of 2.5 arrests. The absence of a clear pattern makes prevention largely a guessing game.
But for the 49ers-Raiders game in December 2014, the league tried to be proactive. Miller had warned months earlier that the league’s schedule makers could not, under any circumstances, allow the teams to play in a late afternoon or night game. He sent his strategic security director and two more league representatives to the West Coast and urged the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, which shares security responsibilities with the City of Oakland, to increase its presence. That would include officers on motorcycles and in golf carts, perched in lookout towers and dressed in 49ers and Raiders jerseys. Though the league typically mandates the end of alcohol sales at the conclusion of the third quarter, NFL security considered advising the Raiders to end alcohol sales at halftime. Kickoff was scheduled for 1:25 p.m. local time.
“They were not unprepared,” Miller said in a telephone interview, but no matter the planning and reinforcements, police were nonetheless called to investigate 49 incidents — the fifth-highest total in any regular season NFL game between 2011 and 2015.
A moment after Oakland quarterback Derek Carr passed for a touchdown, a woman in the upper deck stood to cheer. A man sitting behind her, a police report described, shoved her so hard she flipped over the next row, landing face-first on a seat and opening a five-inch cut on her forehead. When the woman’s boyfriend turned, the man behind him shrugged: “Sorry, bro,” he said.
Shortly after the game, a 24-13 Raiders victory, a man was beaten in the parking lot, left bleeding from the head and “gravely disabled” from his injuries, a police report said. Another man entered the property carrying brass knuckles, a narcotics pouch went missing from a first-aid station, one BMW with a custom Raiders paint job was intentionally scratched, and another vehicle had a window broken.
On this day, police recorded 21 cases of disorderly conduct and at least 25 people ended their game day in the nearby Santa Rita jail.
A significant problem, particularly in some locations, is that there is disagreement among the league, teams and local enforcement on who is ultimately responsible for fan safety.
Casey Nice, an assistant sheriff in California’s Alameda County, is in charge of overseeing the game-day security operation at all Raiders games at Oakland Coliseum. He said he was surprised the Coliseum ranked near the top in terms of arrests, insisting security is more of an emphasis at the stadium than it was years ago and that more arrests could reflect the team’s zero-tolerance policy.
He also defended Raiders fans and believes their reputation as aggressive is largely outdated. That conflicts with what police data suggests: The Raiders tend to increase arrests at stadiums wherever they play; at the average away game for Oakland, arrests go up by 70 percent, according to The Post’s survey, among the highest in the league for road teams. Arrests also tend to go up when the Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers play road games, according to the data.
Though Nice would not reveal how many officers are staffed for each scheduled Raiders game — teams’ security plans are not typically made public — he said it’s common to enlist more personnel for potentially volatile contests, such as division contests or night games.
Nice said he’s in occasional contact with the NFL league office, and he attends the league’s security seminar each year. But he has not received a list of the NFL’s “best practices,” though Nice said that’s just as well.
He believes local officials are better equipped to understand the needs of each NFL stadium than someone 3,000 miles away in the league office, which he said is prone to overreaction.
“I’m in the security business,” Nice said. “They’re in the entertainment business.”
The Washington Post submitted public records requests to police departments that oversee security at each NFL stadium. Twenty-nine of the 31 jurisdictions provided at least partial data, though reporting methods differed from agency to agency; Cleveland and New Orleans did not submit data. Certain data were omitted if found to be incomplete or unreliable. Among those jurisdictions sending partial arrest figures for home games between 2011 and 2015 were Buffalo, Miami and Oakland. St. Louis provided only year-by-year arrest data, rather than game-by-game numbers. Detroit, Minneapolis and Atlanta did not provide data for arrests that took place in stadium parking lots.
View the full data.