Industry of fear

The Department of Homeland Security ranks stadium attack as one of the 12 most devastating possible acts of terrorism. Photo Illustration by CJ Burton for ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the Sept. 19 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

THE SNIPER WORE a baseball cap. He found a secluded spot on a grandstand near the 20-yard line at the south side of Oklahoma State's Boone Pickens Stadium. He lay flat and planted his assault rifle on its mount. He held the gun tight, peering through its telescopic sight across the field to the opposite corner of the end zone. His heart beat faster, but just a little, for he had released this weapon's charge before. Amid the cheers of 60,000 fans, he squeezed the trigger, then pulled it again and again. And again and again.

As the bullets sped toward their target, a monitor in an RV lit up. The screen flashed a triangular wedge of purple within an image of the stadium's architectural plan. Todd Lamb, the lieutenant governor of Oklahoma, was 
inside the RV, surveying this mobile command post. Lamb had played wide receiver for the Cowboys on this field in 1992, back when he ran a 4.5 40 and the stadium was known as Lewis Field. He had protected presidents from assassination as a Secret Service special agent under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He remembers all too keenly coming home from a walk with his son, who wasn't even 2 years old, in a red wagon on Sept. 11, 2001, to find his pager buzzing with calls straight out of hell. His whole reason for being in public life, his whole reason for being at all, was to prevent the loss of American life and liberty.

Lamb watched as a second purple sliver flashed, and the point where the two slices intersected began to glow. Security cameras swerved their view to the precise spot where the sniper had launched his shot, identifying the section, row and nearest seat to rushing guards. The whole thing took a little more than 15 seconds.

It was just a drill. The sniper was an FBI agent. The crowd noise screamed through loudspeakers. The bullets were pinpointed, quickly and accurately, by an OSU-developed system called OverSite along with software and sensors made by Raytheon, a defense technology and security company. Oklahoma State scientists incubated OverSite at the University Multispectral Laboratories (UML), an unconventional-warfare outfit the school launched in 2006. After years of research and millions in taxpayer and private money, OSU tested the project in April, demonstrating its impressive results to Lamb, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin and other policymakers.

The heart of the OverSite system is a device that looks like a vacuum cleaner with microphones sticking out of it. It can use acoustic, chemical or nuclear sensors to sniff out virtually any kind of danger in a large space such as a stadium, and communicate with a command center and remote cameras to combat terrorist attacks. It's one example of a new wave of sophisticated and expensive security technology that promises to scan suspects and dangerous devices at great distances -- a new wave that the world of sports is on the cusp of adopting.

The terrorism threat has already prompted cities, teams and schools to ramp up spending on sports security to $2 billion per year worldwide. And the entire fan experience has grown ever more taxing since 9/11. At today's games, endless lines await you. Guards search you and, if it's your unlucky day, grope you. Cameras spy on you. Traffic barriers, pat-downs and metal detectors all carry the same message: You are safer because your surroundings are bear-trapped.

But the deepest change of all has come gradually over the past decade. As stadium security grows practically omnipresent, it's become impossible to think about sports as pure escapism.

Yet for all the spending, frustrations and fear, fans in most places aren't much safer than they were a decade ago. That might sound shocking, but consider all the dimensions of managing a terrorist attack -- assessing risks, making improvements, training staff and simulating catastrophe. Just one-third of the 1,350 sports arenas in the U.S. are taking all the necessary measures to secure themselves, according to the National Center for Spectator Sports, Safety and Security (NCS4) at the University of Southern Mississippi.

The latest terrorism-fighting technology is amazing, no doubt, but do the leagues, teams and colleges buying it really have any idea how to keep us safe?

FANS DIDN'T NEED 9/11 to recognize that terrorists can target places that were seemingly off-limits. The Palestinian group Black September murdered 11 Israeli athletes and coaches and a German policeman at the Munich Olympics in 1972. During the 1996 Olympics, Eric Rudolph bombed Centennial Park in Atlanta, killing one person and injuring more than 100. But when al-Qaida reconfigured terrorism's potential scale of destruction, it compelled the government, teams and fans to evaluate how devastating a strike on a sports venue would be. The Department of Homeland Security ranks the truck bombing of a stadium as one of the 12 most devastating possible acts of terrorism.

As early as July 2002, the FBI issued an alert that people with connections to terror were downloading images of stadiums from the Internet. Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan immigrant with al-Qaida ties who pleaded guilty last year to conspiring to blow up the New York City subway system, had research about arenas on his computer when he was arrested, according to ABC News. At the time of his death, Osama bin Laden was reportedly talking about assembling a squad to fly a jet into a U.S. sporting event.

The actual response to terrorism threats aimed at sports has varied widely across the country. The Super Bowl and Olympics are two of the few functions that Washington calls "National Security Special Events," so they get federally coordinated protection and support, including FBI and CIA agents, search-and-rescue teams, bomb-sniffing dogs and sometimes planes from the Environmental Protection Agency to test the air for chemical attacks. Which means that if the managers of these two events don't carefully mesh their planning with the help from DC, they can create logistical nightmares for fans. At Super Bowl XLV in Dallas, security lines were so long that it took many fans up to three hours to shuffle, in freezing cold, from parking lots to Cowboys Stadium. It's hard to say how much to blame the feds and how much to blame Dallas owner Jerry Jones, who was focused on setting an attendance record, but some fans took to jumping barriers, while others urinated in beer cans. One woman caught a cab to the Dallas Hyatt Regency and gave the driver her tickets.

For just about any other event, stadium operators are pretty much on their own in combating terror. Several foreign governments, such as the United Kingdom, have established comprehensive safety standards that arenas must meet if they want to hold public sporting events. The U.S. doesn't work that way. Homeland Security will bring together experts and local officials to help a venue prepare for an assault, but it does not require specific planning steps. The DHS does, however, certify certain equipment and services as effective in fighting terrorism. What's more, it shields the companies that make approved products from being sued in the event of a terrorist attack. "The federal government says, 'We're not going to mandate anything, but we will help protect manufacturers from liability,'" says Stacey Hall, associate director of NCS4 and one of the nation's leading experts on stadium security.

The NFL has developed standards for teams to follow in operating arenas, hiring personnel, evaluating risks and responding to emergencies. In 2008, the DHS certified the NFL's "Best Practices for Stadium Security" as a terror-fighting tool. "The NFL has a come-to-Jesus meeting at the end of every year, where they assess all their facilities," says a person who has been briefed on the league's proceedings. "They give every team an A, B or C grade, and you see the owners with C's get shamed into improving." The NFL has shared its guidelines with MLB and the NBA but won't make them public.

Elsewhere, though, antiterror programs are much more scattershot, especially at colleges. Recent studies have revealed that 62 percent of the people running security for FBS schools have no formal training in event security management, more than 60 percent of college programs outsource the hiring of security personnel for game days and fewer than 30 percent of universities run background checks on full-time employees who work at their athletic facilities. "Our school, Southern Mississippi, is meant to be the mecca of sports security," says Hall, "but a street runs under our stadium, and there are buses parked near the field on Saturday afternoons. It's often hard for good procedures to displace habits and traditions."

Instead, college and pro teams often focus on making highly visible attempts to stop terrorism at the door. You've seen the changes: Teams search fans as they enter their facilities and have added security personnel -- often armed -- to watch over their grounds. These are "showy efforts to appear tough," says Derek Catsam, a professor of history at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin and critic of current security efforts. As he wrote in a 2008 analysis in the journal The Public Sphere, "An attack at a big game will more likely come from someone wielding a gun than someone wielding a half-empty bottle of water. It is hard not to be cynical about a policy that happens to profit the concessionaires who sell overpriced drinks without demonstrably increasing safety."

For the companies developing terror-fighting tools, the money and sex appeal are in sci-fi-level detection. Of the 18 products the DHS has certified this year, 12 try to stop attacks before they occur, including metal-
detection, water-contamination and X-ray systems. Since 9/11, these kinds of devices have filled airports, convention halls and corporate headquarters, and now their manufacturers hungrily eye sports arenas. "We see it as an emerging business," says Mark Desmarais, the program director for Clear View at Raytheon. Security companies know just how to capture that market: scare the hell out of anyone who runs a stadium. "When a briefcase enters your facility, is your X-ray system missing something?" a trade ad from American Science and Engineering asks ominously.

Dozens of these businesses were exhibitors at the 2011 National Sports Safety and Security Conference held in New Orleans in August, showing off products to hundreds of venue managers, teams, consultants and government officials. Nearly all the firms are private, and beyond Raytheon and SAIC -- two large defense contractors -- many are small. Mostly, they sell peace of mind, not measurable results. Asked how many disasters his equipment has averted, the director of sales for one company that makes explosive-detection equipment replies: "We don't know. They don't tell us."

That's the thing: Nobody knows. "We haven't seen a clear outline of how to assess your return on investment in trying to stop terrorist attacks," Hall says. "That needs to be done."

All the prevention that arenas practice, and that tech companies promise to enhance, is only half the ball game. Emergency responders, such as officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, talk about the "disaster management cycle," where managers must try not only to prevent a horrible event from happening but to respond once a calamity strikes -- conduct triage, help the injured, shepherd a crowd and possibly evacuate an arena, all while preventing panic.

Most sports programs don't have plans for any emergencies at all. Among FBS schools, 65 percent of them have concluded they still need assistance assessing their vulnerabilities to security threats, according to a 2010 study by NCS4. Also, 46 percent need help with game-planning disaster scenarios, while 41 percent want aid in putting an emergency-response plan in place. "Maybe there's a feel-good factor in acting like nothing bad will ever happen," says one counterterrorism expert who has studied response and recovery plans around the country, "but you can't ensure a 100 percent risk-free environment. And when people in the business put their 'red caps' on and think like terrorists, it's clear that college venues are the least protected across the country. They would make the ideal soft target for a lone wolf out there."

They already have. On Oct. 1, 2005, Joel Hinrichs, a student at Oklahoma, detonated a bomb about 100 yards from a stadium where more than 84,000 fans were watching the Sooners host Kansas State. Hinrichs blew himself up, though nobody else was killed.

THE COMMUNISTS had nuclear weapons, but they also wanted to beat us to the medal stand. Al-Qaida, on the other hand, had box cutters but would blow up the Olympics if it could. That means we need to shift our Cold War thinking from preventing Armageddon to handling relatively smaller but possibly multiple crises and doing it well. "The thing that occurs to me when I'm at a game is not so much the danger from a chemical attack or a shooter," says Stephen McKeever, vice president for research and technology transfer at Oklahoma State and executive director of UML. "It's the danger from the panic that would ensue. That is what we must find a way to control."

Some sports organizations are adapting smart response-and-recovery advice from other industries. The Mariners have installed 114 closed-circuit TV cameras at Safeco Field, and they share intelligence with local police. Texas A&M shut down the power at its football field last year to test parts of its emergency response plan. Trouble is, there's no easy way for fans to know what teams or schools are doing -- or what they expect you to do in a massive emergency.

Is this cause for fear? Not even Lamb believes that. "When I walk to a football game, my thoughts do sometimes turn to whether the stadium is fully prepared," says the lieutenant governor, "but my No. 1 concern on Saturday afternoons is that our quarterback stays healthy. I have confidence in what we've done here."

The evidence shows, however, that the sports world needs to protect arenas more comprehensively, to quantify its terror-fighting more precisely and especially to include fans more thoroughly in planning for the aftermath of disasters.

Fans, just like anyone who's been to an airport, have shown that they will shoulder the hassles and costs of added security. The challenge now is for leagues, teams and colleges to ask us to shoulder even more, but for the right reasons.

Peter Keating is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.