Fan brawls are a persistent game-day problem

Fans crowd the seats for the Ravens game against the San Francisco 49ers at M&T Bank Stadium on August 7, 2014.

The severe beating of a Ravens fan in the stands Sunday and a beer can hurled at an Orioles outfielder in Toronto Tuesday night cast renewed attention on an unfortunately persistent problem in professional sports — fan misbehavior crossing the line from boorish to dangerous.

Violent acts by fans are not only a safety issue, but a public relations problem for the NFL and other leagues promoting themselves as a family-friendly way to spend the day and not a small amount of money.


"It seems like every weekend everybody is posting about somebody getting knocked out or punched" at a game, said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco. "As the in-home experience gets better and better, the reasons for going get less and less."

Joseph Bauer, 55, remains hospitalized in critical condition with a brain injury after being beaten at last Sunday's Ravens-Oakland Raiders game, though his family reported the Jessup man gave his doctors a thumbs-up earlier this week. Two Raiders fans were arrested and charged with assault.


On Tuesday night, a fan in the stands in Toronto threw a full can of beer toward Baltimore outfielder Hyun Soo Kim as he was catching a fly ball in a baseball wild card game. In a 2015 playoff game against the Texas Rangers, Blue Jays fans threw water bottles, cans, rally towels and paper containers onto the field.

Spectator violence has been a part of sports since at least Roman times, when rival chariot racing fans frequently clashed. In 532 AD, a chariot race-related riot left thousands dead in Constantinople — modern Istanbul. Hooliganism is ingrained in European soccer and even appears in the Olympics, where the 1924 American rugby team was attacked with rocks and bottles and fled the field with a police escort after defeating France in Paris.

In 2011, San Francisco Giants fan Bryan Stow suffered a near-fatal beating by two men outside a Los Angeles Dodgers game.

Analysts describe the problem of fan violence as arguably intractable because of the volatile blend of alcohol and fan excitement, particularly at higher-stakes games against rivals or in the postseason.

The NFL defended its approach this week to curtailing fighting inside and outside stadiums.

"One incident is too many and we have worked diligently to address behavior that detracts from the game day experience," said Brian McCarthy, the league's vice president of communications. "This is something that we take very seriously."

The league said it has stepped up stadium security measures in recent years by using undercover officers and camera surveillance, patrolling parking lots, installing metal detectors at gates and establishing text messaging services for fans seeking help in the stands.

The Ravens wouldn't discuss security procedures in-depth but said their "safe management team" includes undercover police and uniformed police officers plus NFL and Ravens security personnel.


A few years ago, the Seattle Seahawks said undercover law enforcement officers were being outfitted in opposing team jerseys "to quickly detect fans exhibiting unruly and inconsiderate behavior" to visiting fans.

Many stadium fights caught on video and posted to social media are between fans wearing jerseys of teams pitted against each other on game days. Few stadium altercations end with injuries as severe as those of Bauer, who was placed on a respirator.

"In the U.S. there is no concerted attempt to segregate fans from opposing teams," said sports sociologist Jay Coakley of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. "This creates situations around a stadium where people can trash-talk and bait opposing fans. More often than not, this consists of empty talk vocalized by people, usually men, seeking recognition and status among the spectators in a particular section."

But sometimes, Coakley said, "things may get out of hand when physical contact occurs, when a drink is spilled or thrown at someone, or when a comment is perceived as a personal threat or derogation."

Ravens fan Matthew Szewczyk said he's witnessed that scenario unfold multiple times, although he has never felt unsafe during games.

"Every time I've seen it, it's usually guys jawing at opposing teams' fans," said Szewczyk, from Hampstead. "It always has to do with alcohol being involved. It's machismo, bravado — whatever you want to call it."


Last year, 21.3 million fans attended 333 NFL games. Arrests inside the teams' stadiums fell from 978 in 2014 to 669 last season, while arrests outside stadiums rose from 449 to 477, McCarthy said.

"Clubs and local law enforcement have stepped up efforts in stadium lots in recent years," he said.

The NFL said no figures were available on the number of violent incidents.

Baltimore police spokesman Donny Moses said it's rare for police to make arrests at Ravens games. Rather, the department generally tries to break up fights and send the participants home.

"It's not uncommon" to kick fans out of a game, said Kevin Byrne, the team's senior vice president of public and community relations. "It's likely to happen a few times each game, more likely to happen in warmer-weather games."

Moses said police do have a holding cell at the department's command station at M&T Bank Stadium. He said the two men charged with assaulting Bauer were moved to the cell until a transport van could take them to Central Booking. Police said the men were Raiders fans.


NFL teams often promote the evolving "game day experience" — everything from the culinary options, to scoreboards providing fantasy football statistics, to one of the largest video screens in the world at the Dallas Cowboys' stadium.

Eager to be regarded as family-friendly, the league tries to fight the perception that the stadium experience can be marred by cursing fans drinking too much.

Szewczyk recalled attending a Ravens' playoff game in January 2012 where "there were four [Houston] Texans fans behind us and they were very, very inebriated. I was there with my friends and family and the fans are spilling beer, and one time a guy fell literally on top of me and was sitting on my shoulders."

It is not clear whether game-day brawls are on the rise or simply becoming more publicly visible because of social media.

The 2016 season hadn't even begun when a group of fans at a preseason Los Angeles Rams game — the team's first in the city after more than two decades in St. Louis — began fighting. A YouTube video showed four fans involved, punches wildly thrown and at least two combatants tumbling over chairs. An Instragram post showed another skirmish in the parking lot at the same game. Some of the combatants wore jerseys of the opposing teams that day: the Rams and the Dallas Cowboys.

Last season, a fan was shot and killed after a fight near an AT&T Stadium parking lot in Texas following a Cowboys-New England Patriots game.


The combination of excessive alcohol and intense football loyalties can be potent.

Moses said football games — especially those at night — tend to have more incidents than baseball games because fans are often drinking "well before the game" while tailgating.

Alcohol sales at M&T Bank Stadium are cut off at the end of the third quarter. Fans are ejected for "drunk and disorderly behavior," according to the team's "fan code of conduct."

More incidents seem to occur when the Ravens are hosting rivals like the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Patriots, Moses said.

The intensity of NFL games — of which there are only 16 in the regular season compared to 162 in Major League Baseball — may help incite fans predisposed to fighting.

"There's a social identity fans have with the team," said Jason Lanter, a psychology professor at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. "Each regular-season game has more weight in football than other sports, so fans may place more value on the outcome of the game and could take a loss harder than a regular-season baseball game."


Alcohol isn't always a culprit.

"Of course, alcohol may reduce inhibitions, but there are cases where fans seek to create a memorable experience that they can brag about post game and for years thereafter," Coakley said.

Fans really need to police themselves, he said.

"If peaceful fans don't do something to sanction obnoxious fans," Coakley said, "comments may escalate."

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.