- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2009

Ah, game day: Tailgating in the parking lot, cheering for the home team, enjoying one of America’s many favorite pastimes. It’s also a time for swearing, ranting, drinking, even threatening.

For many sports fans, a stadium is the last place in America that will tolerate taunting, binge drinking, verbal abuse and other otherwise-inappropriate social behavior. It has caused professional sports leagues to institute fan codes of conduct, and ticket holders to think twice before taking the kids to the game.

What we’re seeing is a confluence of factors, says Edward Hirt, an Indiana University professor of psychology who has studied fan behavior. For many sports fans, identifying with their team is part of “who they are,” similar to their identification with an ethnicity or religion. Add to that the significance of team rivalries and a large does of alcohol, and you’ve got the guy in the Cowboys sweatshirt calling the Redskins defense a bunch of *%&#$.

The players likely won’t hear the expletives, but your 10-year-old might. Right around the same time your 12-year-old ducks the beer cup thrown by the same fan.

“People wrap up a lot of emotion into a team, then lose their inhibitions because of alcohol, all of a sudden they just kind of explode,” Mr. Hirt says. “They lose perspective, and then get into that group mentality. People tend to overdo fan behavior when there are people there to support it. And given the expense of games, there is a sense of entitlement. People think ‘I spent a lot of money for these seats. I can do what I want.’”

That has led the NFL to institute a policy that basically says, “No, you can’t do what you want.” The NFL Fan Code of Conduct, issued last fall, says, “We want all fans attending our games to enjoy the experience in a responsible fashion.”

Among the prohibited behaviors are intoxication that results in irresponsible behavior, foul or abusive language or obscene gestures, and verbal or physical harassment of opposing team fans. Ultimate consequences include ejection from the game, loss of tickets for future games and even losing season ticket privileges.

The NFL Code of Conduct went into effect after HBO’s “Real Sports” program aired a segment that featured scenes of drunken and unruly behavior by football fans. Among the highlights: Redskins fans getting falling-down drunk in the parking lot, and a crowd of New York Jets fans at Giants Stadium chanting at women to take their tops off.

The National Basketball League instituted a code in 2005, after a scuffle between fans and players broke out at an Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons game. Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League do not have leaguewide policies, but fan behavior is discussed and monitored by the individual clubs. Some professional sports teams — but none in the Washington area — have alcohol-free or family sections in the stands. Others have more security cameras to monitor incidents and are urging fans who are bothered by other fans to send an anonymous text message to team security, who will stop by the seats and handle the situation.

“We’ve sent the Code of Conduct to every season-ticket holder,” says Zack Bolno, spokesman for the Washington Redskins. “As a club, we have always had some long-standing rules, and we will continue to take a proactive approach towards behavior that is unruly or illegal.”

Mr. Bolno says the Redskins’ text-messaging system has been popular, but the club does not have a count of how many texts security received during the 2008 season.

In the past, D.C. United did have a smoke- and alcohol-free family section at RFK Stadium, says team spokesman Doug Hicks. When the entire stadium became a smoke-free facility several years ago, the system was rendered somewhat unnecessary.

Meanwhile, Major League Soccer has a leaguewide fan code of conduct, and D.C. United has a text-message system in place for security complaints. D.C. United can immediately move ticket holders to different seats if they are uncomfortable with fan behavior nearby.

“We’ve worked to create a family-friendly atmosphere,” Mr. Hicks says. “We’re focused on creating an event that works for everyone.”

Seats for United games are more or less divided into “the loud side” and the “the louder side.” Vocal fan groups such as the Screaming Eagles and Barra Brava sit on the louder side. That’s why many families choose seats across the way.

Alicia and Jonathan Leonard of Reston hold season tickets for D.C. United and George Mason basketball. Their seats have moved around RFK as their two sons, now ages 7 and 5, have grown. Right now, they sit on the quieter side of the stadium.

“When I am with my kids, I’ve been known to turn around and ask someone to watch their mouth,” Mrs. Leonard says. She says she weighs which team United is playing before committing to bring her sons to a game.

“When it is one of their rivals, things have the potential to get out of hand,” she says. “It seems like at the basketball games, fans are better behaved. Baseball really does it right, with all the playgrounds and extra things they have going on for kids. I won’t even think of taking them to a football game until they are teenagers, though.”

Mr. Hirt says the sports with the most violent on-field behavior often have the most vocal fans. And even though one grisly hit may be an insignificant part of the game, it still ends up being played over and over on the highlight reel.

“Whether it is video games or on the sports field, people are more exposed to violence in general [today],” Mr. Hirt says. “It changes your thinking. It activates and colors your memory about how you think about things. That can lead to more aggression.”

Fueling that aggression, of course, is alcohol. That’s why sports leagues and concessionaires are working together to increase alcohol-abuse awareness and step up designated driver programs.

“Fans who choose to act rowdy are going to do so regardless of alcohol,” says Jill Pepper, executive director of the TEAM (Techniques for Effective Alcohol Management) Coalition. “Alcohol helps some get there quicker, and respond less appropriately. I’m not sure it’s the cause of [inappropriate fan behavior], but it increases the effect.”

The TEAM Coalition, a nonprofit, was formed in the mid-1980s, when there were virtually no alcohol service policies in effect at stadiums and arenas. Innovations such as checking IDs and stopping service at a certain point in the game are now standard.

“The key is consistency and fan awareness,” Ms. Pepper says. “We are trying to focus on responsible alcohol consumption.”

She also says that designating one section of a stadium as family-friendly seating does not tackle the real problem of irresponsible drinking.

“We want every part of every ballpark to be family friendly,” she says. “When you have one area that is safe and protected, it doesn’t mean the rest isn’t. One of the challenges with that is if you have a designated section, and you have a fan who is not following the rules in that section, it leaves an even worse taste.”

Besides, segregating on the basis of behavior can be a slippery slope toward segregation for a host of other attributes.

“A couple of ballparks now have peanut-free zones in case there are kids with allergies,” she says. “Are we going to see Yankee-free zones at Red Sox games at Fenway Park?”

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