The USA Today story last week about the NFL's decision to increase security measures for fans entering every stadium -- to make it quick, just be prepared to check your dignity at the gate -- included the following sentence: "The NFL suffered damage to its family-friendly image when a South Carolina man was arrested for using an illegal stun gun on other fans at a New York Jets-Dallas Cowboys game."
The shocking part of the sentence wasn't the dude zapping fans with his stun gun. It was the "family-friendly" part. I enjoy the NFL and can spend an inordinate amount of time watching it over the course of Sunday and Monday, but I've never considered the in-stadium experience to be particularly "family-friendly."
It's true that "family-friendly" is a term that's open to interpretation. Some people take their 5-year-olds to R-rated movies; some don't. If you go to a game by yourself, wearing full pads, a skull mask and a Jim Otto jersey, you probably have a different definition of "family-friendly" than the guy with a 6-year-old son whose idea of adventure is riding his bike outside of the cul de sac. You know, to each his own.
It's a big world out there.
Jeremy Maclin: family-friendly.
Dunta Robinson: not so much.
In my experience, the NFL on-site experience is a crapshoot. The social contract regarding fan conduct is different in Minnesota or Kansas City than it is in Oakland or Philadelphia. When two fans were shot outside Candlestick Park after a Raiders-49ers preseason game, and another was found unconscious in a restroom, the only people truly "shocked" -- as in I can't believe this could possibly happen -- were those who had never been to an NFL game. It was reported in San Francisco that despite increased security measures, the season opener against the Seahawks included the bonus spectacle of a man urinating on an entire group of men waiting to go to the bathroom the old-fashioned way.
But it took Taser Guy to bring out the latest installment of Feel-Good Security Theater, presented by every nut-job who has done something stupid enough to let fears of a far worse incident run wild. (Typical "Culture of Fear" progression: If he had a Taser, he could have had a gun, and if he had a gun, he could have had a bomb -- and what if that bomb happens to be a nuclear suitcase?) Starting this past weekend, the fan experience at an NFL game includes a pat-down by a yellow-jacketed security guard of your same gender. He/she will start at your ankles and finish at your shoulders. The NFL says the new policy is not a direct reaction to the stun-gun incident, but more of a response to the accumulated events.
At some point, the question has to be asked: Is the experience of going to an NFL game more trouble than it's worth? The hassle of simply attending a game doesn't even touch on the cost, which is prohibitive for most people who are too busy paying rent and food bills and the required taxes that go toward building America's sporting Taj Mahals.
More than a week before their home opener, the Bengals announced they wouldn't sell out. The Dolphins bought up the remaining unsold seats for their opener to avoid a local television blackout. The Buccaneers didn't think enough of their fans to do the same, even though taxpayers ponied up more than $160 million for Raymond James Stadium.
(At some point, if the hassle/cost/indignity/danger of attending a game supersedes the experience, the pressure to overthrow the arrogant and counterproductive blackout rule figures to increase.)
The experience of attending a game has always been tied to generational commonality and communal appreciation of something live, unscripted and often spectacular. I get that, but the vibe in some NFL stadiums threatens to destroy all aspects of it. The NFL, as it should, is attempting to curtail the rogue behavior by patrolling parking lots before games and making sure that everyone in the parking lot has a ticket and isn't planning on spending the afternoon on the tailgate with a bottle of peppermint schnapps, a transistor and -- if his team loses -- a tire iron.
But all this increased security and the attendant hassle can't help but erode the fans' willingness to subject themselves to the cattle herd. Why not stay home? After all, the game is the quintessential television sport. With the price of the biggest and best HDTV less than the price of the worst season ticket package, it's no wonder 2010 marked the third straight year attendance has dropped. You see more at home, anyway, and a trip to the bathroom -- presumably -- is less crowded and more predictable. And when you're watching a good game in high-definition, you'd think the technology was developed solely for the sport.
And now, game attendance comes with the added burden of proving your innocence. No firearm, no bottle of Albertson's scotch, no Taser -- you're good to go. In addition to factoring in the time needed to park and walk into the stadium, you need to guess how long it's going to take for security guards to pat down 50,000 or so people before they hit the turnstiles. This, of course, is in addition to the backpack/purse checks that need to be done. All in the name of making everyone feel safe.
You can be comforted, however, by the knowledge that there is no person on Earth who wields a minimal amount of power with such animalistic ferocity as an NFL game-day security guard. People who are charged with nothing more important than keeping areas clear for the passage of maintenance carts operate with more officiousness and petty bullying than those charged with guarding nuclear codes.
If you watched closely on Sunday night, you would have seen the phenomenon in action when a security guy led Michael Vick to the locker room. He was indiscriminately shoving and waving away stationary photographers and television crew members, all for the purpose of creating a 20-foot wide path for Vick to jog through. This is a man (Vick) who is due $100 million in large part because of his ability to pass through evil-intentioned, well-conditioned, 250- to 300-pound athletes running full speed in a fraction of that space.
So good luck with those pat-downs. Don't do anything rash.
Once you get in the stadium, the "family-friendly" experience just might include a stadium-wide cheer when a pivotal player on the opposing team is injured, as happened in Atlanta when Vick went down with a concussion. Or it might include a stadium-wide jeer when one of the hometown 11 -- say, Atlanta's Robinson -- gets penalized for intentionally attempting to injure someone.
Despite all that, it looks like it's going to be one nutty dude with a stun gun -- and, unfortunately, the willingness to use it -- who could tip the balance. He's either the catalyst for a new and improved fan experience, or one more reason to stay home.
ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote the autobiography of Pawn Stars' Rick Harrison. "License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and my Life at the Gold & Silver" is available on Amazon.com. He also co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," available as well on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.