Sporting Event Security: Bothersome or Necessary?

Prior to Super Bowl XLI, and for that matter, any significant sporting event in North America, spectators face careful security checks. The lists of prohibited items are usually long, running the gamut from obvious things like weapons and fireworks, to more subtle items such as bottles and coolers. Cell phones are checked to make sure they really work. Apparently, you could use a dummy phone to detonate a bomb, or so explained a security guard I dealt with at a ballgame last summer. Fans are strongly urged to arrive early and make certain they do not carry anything they’re not allowed to have.

Is it an inconvenience? Perhaps, but it sure beats the alternative that has dominated news here in Europe since February 2nd. Fans of Italy’s Catania and Palermo soccer teams, rivals from the island of Sicily, were involved in significant rioting, injuring many fans trying to escape. Italian police officer Filippo Raciti was not so fortunate. A fan hit him with a blunt object, possibly a metal pole, killing him. Prime Minister Romano Prodi described the episode as “guerrilla war” to various press agencies.

Prodi’s description might be extreme, given events in Iraq, but violence from so-called “ultras,” which by no means represent a majority of soccer fans, has become an epidemic in recent years. According to an ESPN report last month, fans in Livorno threw rocks and other items at policemen who were removing cars blocking a fire-truck trying to handle an emergency. Many incidents have occurred within stadiums themselves, such as fans throwing firecrackers and smoke bombs onto the field, putting players and officials at risk. The saddest part is that many teams have long tolerated this, whether ultras practiced violence or racism (another long-standing issue in Europe), leaving it to the police to resolve (so far unsuccessfully). Simple security procedures like ours or those in England, which also experienced hooliganism at its worst in the 1980s, might have prevented numerous incidents by keeping out weapons and revoking tickets from offenders. Worse, ESPN columnist Roberto Gotta argues that the Italian media has largely tolerated these problems by not actively criticizing them. Given the wording of many headlines of Italian sports dailies, I have no reason to argue with him.

The Italian government now plans to impose strict regulations on teams and the cities that operate stadiums. Noncompliance will result in fans being barred from attending games. As Raciti’s 15-year old daughter said at the state funeral this week that she hoped this tragedy would result in improvements geared toward true fans as well as soccer players.

So next time you complain about waiting 40 minutes to get into the Final Four and not being allowed to bring in beer, spare a thought for Filippo Raciti’s family. Screening may be inconvenient, but you’ll be thankful we can attend sporting events in this country without fear of violence or truly ill behaved fans.