When Football Fans Attack: How to Fix the NFL's Violence Problem

What's to blame for recent fights in San Francisco and Baltimore?



Welcome to the end of Western Civilization. Please leave your humanity at the door.

That's what people seemed to do in San Francisco last weekend, when fans attacked each other at Candlestick Park during an NFL preseason game between the 49ers and Oakland Raiders. In addition to countless fights in the bleachers—many of which were caught on camera--serious injuries included two men being shot in the parking lot, and another badly beaten in a stadium restroom.

On Monday, the NFL reacted. 49ers chief executive Jed York announced increased security patrols and more DUI checkpoints around the stadium, and a ban on tailgating at Candlestick after games have started. The league also said that any season ticket-holder found to have taken part in the violence will have their tickets revoked.

This doesn't seem like nearly enough. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has defined his tenure by taking a hardline on character issues for players—witness Tuesday's meetings with Kenny Britt and Aqib Talib—and should be just as tough or tougher on fans who misbehave. After all, who affects the average fan's experience more directly: a player who gropes a waitress a thousand miles away, or a belligerent fan in the next row? At the very least, any fans found guilty of fighting at an NFL stadium should be banned for life from attending another game.

York, as expected, also said he would ask the NFL to remove the annual preseason meeting between the Bay area rivals from next year's schedule. That's the right call, of course, but it nevertheless feels like the wrong one. There's something demoralizing about the mighty NFL declaring itself unable to provide a safe environment for fans when the Niners and Raiders meet. It feels like the league is capitulating to thuggery.

The fan-on-fan violence at Candlestick, along with less severe but equally creepy brawls in Baltimore during Friday night's meeting between the Ravens and Chiefs, was immediately lumped in with an attack earlier this summer on Bryan Stow, who is still in the hospital, months after being savagely beaten at Dodgers Stadium for the crime of being a Giants fan.

On his video blog for ESPN.com, Jeremy Schapp articulated the conventional wisdom that fan-on-fan violence merely reflects a rising tide of aggression in society a whole. It's hard, Schapp said, not to "see a correlation between what's happening with fans, and what's happening in the culture at large," suggesting that this culture-wide rise in violence is caused, at least in part, by the widening gap between rich and poor.

Toronto Star columnist Cathal Kelly agrees with the economic argument. He writes that "times for many North Americans are mean, and as a result, North Americans are getting meaner."

Seems logical. There's only one problem. It's not true. There is no rising tide of violence, not if you believe the FBI crime statistics, whose latest figures show a 5.5 percent drop in reported violent crimes between 2009 and 2010.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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