Paying people to ID violent sports fans: a winning idea?

A California lawmaker wants to set up a fund to pay people who help identify violent sports fans. His legislation comes after brutal attacks this year at Dodger Stadium and Candlestick Park.

Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle/AP
Police officers investigate the scene of a shooting just outside of lot L at Candlestick Park, where the San Francisco 49ers had just finished playing the Oakland Raiders in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 20.

Can violence by sports fans be addressed by legislation?

That's the hope of a California state lawmaker who has introduced a bill meant to deter violent fan behavior at sports events.

While skeptics would note that beefed-up security and reduced alcohol sales, not a new law, might be the more effective solution, some sports sociologists see merit in the idea. It would be another tool in the tool bag for sports franchises and stadium owners to use to keep crowds under control, they say.

The measure would allow for stiffer sentences for people convicted of fighting or attacking others at sporting events. It also would create a fund, fed by mandatory $50,000 annual donations from the California-based sports franchises, to pay rewards for information leading to suspects in such incidents.

"I know a lot of parents who are afraid to take their kids to a ballgame," said state Assemblyman Mike Gatto, the bill's sponsor, in a statement. "That's not the California that I know."

His move comes on the heels of two violent incidents involving fans at sports stadiums in California.

San Francisco Giants fan Bryan Stow, a paramedic and father of two, was attacked from behind in the Dodger Stadium parking lot in Los Angeles on March 31, and he remains hospitalized with a brain injury. After a long search and help from the public, police arrested several suspects.

Over the weekend, two fans were injured during a shooting at the San Francisco 49ers-Oakland Raiders preseason football game at Candlestick Park. In a separate incident at the game, a man was beaten unconscious in a stadium bathroom. Police in the San Francisco Bay Area are still searching for suspects.

"There are many things worth fighting for,” said Mr. Gatto. “The fact that someone wore a rival sports franchise's jersey to a game isn't one of them.”

Gatto’s action is welcomed by some who study fan behavior.

“I certainly applaud this,” says Kevin Grace, a researcher in violence and sports marketing at the University of Cincinnati. “Even my students complain that they can’t even have a couple of beers any more at a sporting event because of isolated pockets of fans who are getting profane. This is a good thing. It’s not overregulation, just more focused regulation.”

"This legislation is just what is needed," agrees Jarred Chin, instructor of training and curriculum at the Center for Sport in Society, at Northeastern University in Boston. It's smart to involve bystanders via a reward system for being vigilant, he suggests. “We always teach how to get bystanders involved because then you’ve increased the monitoring exponentially,” he says. “Many of these people just came to have a good time at the game and are seeing this violence escalate and don’t know what to do.”

What's needed is a new emphasis on what could be called “bystander literacy,” says Charles Williams III, director of the Center for Prevention of School-Aged Violence at Drexel University.

“What everyone around the adversaries is doing during an escalation is extremely important, from egging them on to frowning on what they are doing," says Mr. Williams. "Imagine if 60 people stood strong behind someone who was being wronged by a bully. That would stop it dead in its tracks. The problem is we are not taught this anywhere." The Gatto bill, he says, may help to create a greater culture of watchfulness among fans at sporting events, because of the reward potential, and a disincentive to take part in violence because potential perpetrators would know they are being watched.

Some major league sports teams have instituted new safety precautions. The NFL's Cincinnati Bengals set up a system for fans to text security officials about altercations, to remain uninvolved. MLB's Oakland Athletics cut off alcohol sales after the seventh inning, while security personnel and concessionaires monitor crowds for disorderly behavior.

Though the two California incidents are receiving much media attention, violence at sports stadiums is not on the upswing, experts say.

“This [San Francisco] episode and the one at Dodger Stadium should not be viewed as sign of a new trend. Crowd violence is hardly a new phenomenon,” says criminologist James Fox, at Northeastern University in Boston. “These are just two extreme cases that happened to occur coincidently in the same state.”

“We would echo that this is nothing new and needs to be looked at in the context of masculinity in our culture,” says Mr. Chin. The bigger trend is that American men are gravitating toward more violence within the games – as seen by a desire to watch harder hits in football and by increased attendance to mixed martial arts. “It has become an issue of hypermasculinity and the question needs to be asked, ‘Why are men wrapping themselves up in their teams so much that they are losing sight of having a good time?' It’s no longer a family environment at some of these arenas.”

Others say fan violence at sports events is an outgrowth of American society itself.

“We see it daily in popular culture, advertising, film, and sports: The big car crash, blood, sex, and gore get people's attention. We have seen so much of this in American culture that people have become desensitized to violence," says Mark Tatge, professor of journalism at DePauw University’s Center for Contemporary Media.

“The John-Wayne tough-guy never-back down mentality has taken over America again,” says Drexel's Mr. Williams. “Americans have learned from the age of infancy that that’s who we are and what we look up to. Look what just happened in Washington with the debt-ceiling debate. Neither party wanted to back down, so the US lost its triple-A bond rating for the first time in history.”

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