NFL intercedes in Bills fan's tailgate

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- No longer feeling welcome in the Buffalo Bills' main parking lot, a tailgating institution is on the move as the NFL draws a line between what's considered family friendly and R-rated entertainment.

After 21 years of tailgating in the same lot outside Ralph Wilson Stadium, Ken Johnson plans to take his party across the street starting with the next home game in two weeks.

And with him, Johnson's bringing along his wildly colorful and popular traditions: from the red 1980 Pinto on which he grills meat on the hood to the pizza oven made out of a filing cabinet to a chicken wing-cooking mailbox and, yes, even the long-established ceremony of drinking shots of Polish cherry liqueur out of the thumbhole of a bowling ball.

"It disappoints me that I have to move away from a lot where I've been for about 20 years, but I saw it coming a long time ago," said Johnson, whose tailgate has attracted international recognition as he's been featured in newspapers, on The Food Network and even profiled in a German magazine. "I have known for a long time that they want to sanitize Lot 1 and turn it into a family lot."

The reality of that shift became apparent Sunday when, Johnson said, a league official threatened to shut down his party before the Bills' season opener. Aside from his tailgate creating a potential crowd control issue, Johnson was informed by security that the league official frowned on the bowling ball shots he provides to passers-by who line up at his site.

Johnson complied by plugging the bowling ball and started informing his regulars he was moving.

Rather than cause a stir, Johnson can appreciate finding himself in the middle of a debate over what was once considered permissible and quaint, and a league that's grown concerned over how alcohol abuse turns away fans.

"In my case, I do push the limits, so I can't scream too loudly," Johnson said. "But you wonder how many people go to games because of characters like me. I think I add to the experience."

If that experience includes bowling ball shots, then Johnson's not welcome. When it comes to protecting its fan base in a tough economy, the NFL is taking a hard line on what it considers unacceptable behavior, said Jeffrey Miller, NFL director of strategic security programs.

"The NFL absolutely embraces and supports tailgating. And we also support the responsible use of alcohol," Miller said. "We want people to come and have fun and enjoy themselves and have a great time with friends and family. But we don't want to make it an adults-only, R-rated experience. We want it to be something that's inclusive to everybody."

Miller is familiar with what happened Sunday because the NFL official who questioned Johnson is someone he's hired on contract to work with the team to improve its fan environment. The work is an extension of a fan code of conduct policy Commissioner Roger Goodell introduced two years ago to reduce unruly behavior due to drunk fans.

Johnson's tailgate presents numerous concerns, Miller said.

He accused Johnson of being in violation of state law by dispensing liquor without a license. He said there's liability issues for the Bills, because this is happening on property they control. And Miller even noted there's the potential of someone getting hurt with the bowling ball, which people bounce on the ground after taking their shot.

"Irregardless of the fact that he may have been doing this over the course of a number of years, it doesn't make it right," Miller said. "People taking shots out of a bowling ball actually has the effect of repelling families."

Johnson said he doesn't accept any money or tips for the shots. And he said does not provide alcohol to minors because he has what he calls his "bartenders" check for identification.

It's unclear whether Johnson is breaking the law.

When informed of what Johnson does by phone, Bill Crowley of the New York State Liquor Authority said the tailgater's actions fall into a gray area.

Bills fans are renown for their tailgating experiences and, on occasion rowdy behavior, one of the reasons many in Buffalo fondly regard the city as "a drinking town with a football problem."

Last year, an 8½-foot wooden carving of former Bills running back Thurman Thomas was stolen from its place at the stadium. It was eventually rescued across the border in Ontario after people attempted to burn it.

Joe Cahn, the self-proclaimed official commissioner of tailgating, describes Buffalo as providing one of the NFL's best tailgating experiences. And he refers to Johnson as "unique."

Though disappointed that Johnson is moving, he backs the NFL's position on promoting a fan-friendly environment.

"As I travel around, I have to say that something was needed," Cahn said. "The good unfortunately have to suffer for the idiots. And the idiots don't even know it, because they're drunk."

As word filtered out about Johnson's pending move, some Bills fans criticized the NFL for establishing restrictive rules that alienate longtime fans.

"Now I have to pay $30 to $60 to park in a lot just to hear the equivalent of your parents slap me on the hand and yell at me for drinking?" Jay Crowe said. "Forcing Kenny to move is affecting some 20 years of tradition. It's beyond ridiculous. It is just another step in the wrong direction."

Bills spokesman Scott Berchtold backed the NFL's position by citing overwhelming support for the team since it began enforcing stricter rules policing drunken behavior.

"We understand that tailgating is an important part of the game-day experience for many of our fans, and some have established traditions," Berchtold said. "We certainly want our fans to continue to enjoy the tailgating experience, but we expect them to do so responsibly."

The scruffy-bearded Johnson is a computer software engineer from Rochester who spends about $4,000 a year on his tailgate. He's also a strong Bills fan, having not missed a game home or away since 1994. That streak will reach 263 this weekend, when he drives to watch Buffalo play at Green Bay on Sunday.

"A lot of people are bummed out," Johnson said. "But I just keep telling them, 'You have to overcome. We'll be OK in the long run. This is just a little blip.'"