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Madden: Alcohol is root of fan violence

Saturday, December 22, 2001

When fans pelted the field with bottles Sunday at Cleveland -- and Monday at New Orleans -- the problem wasn't a bad call by the officials. The problem wasn't lax stadium security. The problem wasn't a few deranged individuals. The problem wasn't selling beverages in bottles. The problem was the beverage itself.

The problem was alcohol.

What happened in Cleveland was a by-product of heavy drinking, something that has become an unfortunate pro football tradition. Every weekend at stadiums across America, fans show up hours and hours before kickoff to drink themselves stupid in the parking lot. Then, they enter the stadiums and drink some more. On my radio show, I estimated that 20 percent of the audience at Heinz Field on any given Sunday is legally drunk. Many ticket holders called to tell me that my guess was way too low.

Really, it's a wonder that situations such as the one in Cleveland don't happen more often. And given the monkey-see, monkey-do attitude of America's drunks and idiots (to say nothing of America's drunken idiots), it's extremely likely the situation will be repeated. Or that worse incidents will occur. It's a good way to get on TV, right?

I realize that nobody got hurt in Cleveland. That doesn't mean it's no big deal. Injuries were avoided by the grace of God. You can't count on that all the time.

English soccer has taken a media beating in the wake of Cleveland. Journalists fret that NFL crowds are becoming like English soccer hooligans, ready to drink and destroy at a moment's notice. Quite ironic, since English soccer has taken significant steps to solve the problem of plastered fans. These steps have resulted in almost zero trouble inside English soccer stadiums within recent memory.

Here's the alcohol policy of a typical English soccer team. It's a policy the NFL should adopt.

Alcohol is only sold before kickoff and at halftime, and only in the concourse under the stands.

Alcohol cannot be consumed in the stands, only in the concourse. (This goes for the luxury boxes, too, which is a nice touch. No special treatment for the rich.)

Alcohol is sold in plastic cups, not plastic bottles.

The law prohibiting open containers containing alcohol is strictly enforced outside stadiums. Ergo, no tailgating.

If you're a reasonable drinker, this is a reasonable policy. Most pregame drinking would be done in bars, thereby being a bit less frenzied and a lot more regulated. This would help stimulate the economy around the stadiums, which I thought was a major goal here in Pittsburgh.

Once inside the stadium, you could still have a few beers. Again, drinking would be kept at reasonable levels. Three beers at the bar, two beers inside the stadium before the game, a beer at halftime ... that's very reasonable.

I'm not trying to eliminate general drunkenness. If you want to cavalierly destroy your own liver, then go drive into a tree, I don't care. Just don't hurt an innocent bystander. But when you get tens of thousands of drunks in a relatively confined area who are whipped into a further frenzy by their passion for living vicariously through a very physical sporting contest, there exists a strong likelihood that an innocent bystander eventually will be hurt. There also exists the potential for a massive fight or riot. Cleveland was just the tip of the iceberg. Unsolved little problems become unsolvable big problems. (There's one thing that often gets lost in the shuffle of a discussion like this: All these drunks drive home after the game.)

I'd like to say the Steelers are trying their best, but I'm not sure I can. The Steelers encourage irresponsible drinking by opening Heinz Field parking lots five hours before games. The team says it does so to avoid traffic jams, but I think three hours would do the trick in that regard. The Steelers want a rowdy crowd -- Bill Cowher has said so on many occasions -- and five hours of tailgating assures that. And, despite Cleveland, beer will still be sold in plastic bottles at Heinz Field.

A lot of fans would be upset if the NFL controlled on-site drinking. But a lot of fans -- such as those who take their families to the game -- would be happy. In any event, demand far exceeds supply in most cities when it comes to NFL tickets. If any fan decided he didn't want to go if he couldn't get saloon-faced, his ticket easily could be sold to someone else. When your product is as popular as NFL football, you can afford to be selective about who your customers are.

Beer companies wouldn't pull their advertising if alcohol consumption was curbed. Revenue from stadium sales is nice, but the exposure derived through signs and TV ads is more important.

A lot of morons seem to feel it's their God-given right to get hammered every football Sunday. It isn't. Being drunk and disorderly is a crime. Driving drunk is a crime. Throwing dangerous objects is a crime.

Nothing's going to change right now. The situation is dangerous, but the NFL won't address it until somebody dies or is grievously injured. I have a feeling that day isn't very far off. Meantime, enjoy your drinks.


Mark Madden's talk show is heard from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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