OVER THE LINE

COVID may take a backseat to this newest threat to live sporting events

We've already seen fights in the stands at Astros games. Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images.

It's nothing new, really, but there seems to be more unruly fan behavior than ever at American sports events: fistfights in the stands, spitting on players, throwing popcorn and a water bottle at NBA All-Stars, violating COVID protocol, profanity-laced jeers directed at individual players … where does it end?

Here's where it might – sports events played in empty stadiums with fans forbidden from attending. That's nothing new, either, especially in Europe and South America where out-of-control soccer fans ("hooligans") have forced the sport's ruling bodies, including FIFA and UEFA, to punish teams and fans by forcing matches to be played "behind closed doors." Typically this is the last resort against fan violence or racism.

"Behind closed doors" isn't limited to soccer. In 2009, Israel was scheduled to meet Sweden in the first round of tennis' Davis Cup international tournament. The host city in Sweden, fearing anti-Israel demonstrations, pre-emptively announced that the event would be held without fans.

"Behind closed doors" isn't limited to Europe and South America, either. It's happened here. In 2015, a game between the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles was played without fans at Camden Yards. There was civil unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, an African-American man who was injured while in police custody. The Orioles and city of Baltimore could not guarantee the safety of fans attending the game. Since the game could not be rescheduled for later that season, the teams took the field without fans in the stands. It was an eerie sight in America.

Could current unruly fan behavior rise to events routinely being held "behind closed doors" here? It might, unless something is done now to address unacceptable fan behavior. Teams must strictly strengthen ("enhance") a code of conduct for fans. Perhaps stadiums should designate sections for fans of the visiting team. Family sections with no alcohol sales may be worth considering. Or sections for vaccinated fans only. Anything to lower the temperature in the stands.

Several years ago I was in Rome and bought a ticket from a scalper outside Stadio Olimpico for the big match between A.S. Roma and Juventus. I had never been to a European soccer match, but I had heard wild stories about fans going nuts. This I gotta see.

How was I to know, but my ticket was in the Juventus "supporters section." Enemy territory. The section was partitioned off with bulletproof glass and patrolled by police with automatic weapons strapped on their backs. That didn't stop A.S. Roma fans from tossing chairs and plastic baggies filled with urine over the barriers. The baggies would burst when they hit the ground dousing nearby fans. While disgusting, for an American attending his first soccer match, it was exciting, a story to tell when I got back home. Then again, I wasn't splashed with hooligan urine. Things would have been different then.

A couple of years later, my train from Amsterdam to Paris was delayed for several hours because of soccer "hooliganism." The announcement at Amsterdam Centraal station used that word. This time I was pissed.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Yankee Stadium for the Astros first games in front of Yankee fans since the Astros cheating scandal broke. I didn't expect Yankee fans to roll out the welcome wagon, but I was surprised when the sold-out crowd (COVID-limited to 10,800) chanted "F-Altuve" and "F-Houston" in unison like a well trained cheer squad. Yankee fans were so hostile that Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, who just last year told critics to "shut the f-up," complained about the jeering.

No problem here. You want to jump and scream at the opposing team, have at it.

I've had a problem with fan behavior only one time. In 2002, I took my son, then 5 years old, to a professional wrestling event. I know, I'm a horrible parent, but I was "working." We were in the 10th row. In the 11th row, directly behind us, were five or six guys, I'm guessing in their early 20s, who were yelling graphic sexual insults at the wrestlers, especially the women grapplers. As the evening wore on, the guys got drunker and drunker, and their screams got filthier and filthier and more obscene and racist.

I've been to hundreds of wrestling events, but this was offensive even for wrestling. I'm sitting there with a child, what to do? If I turn and tell them to shut up, they'll tell me where I can go and what I can do when I get there – in front of my kid. I couldn't change seats, the venue was sold out. If I asked an usher for help, well, have you seen the ushers at Houston stadiums? By the time they make it down to the 10th row, it'll be tomorrow. My only option was to leave. Parents who bring their children to a sporting event should never have to leave because other fans can't behave.

The answer to growing fan violence and offensive behavior is difficult. I know that a fan spitting or throwing something at a player warrants more than simple ejection and banning from future events. Maybe it's time to arrest violent fans and throw them in jail for a few days.

If unruly fans keep it up the only answer may be empty stadiums, and nobody wants that.

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Keep an eye on Alex Bowman this weekend. Image via: Wiki Commons.

For the first time since July 1984, NASCAR returns to one of its most popular cities in Nashville, Tennessee for the inaugural Ally 400 at Nashville Super Speedway. This track is a 1 1/3rd mile concrete oval that was dormant for nearly ten years and was only used as a testing facility. So it came as a bit of a surprise last season when it was announced that this track would be getting a date. For a lot of drivers, this will be a brand new racetrack, but we will see practice and qualifying, so that will be a huge help for the newcomers that haven't raced here before. Back when the Xfinity and Trucks ran here, this track featured a lot of first time winners. Back in 2008, future NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski shocked the world by jumping in Dale Jr's car and capturing his first win here. There will be a lot of veterans like Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick who have plenty of experience at this track, but it will be tough to compare. It should be fun with everyone coming into this race with minimal knowledge.

Last week, Kyle Larson continued his hot streak by winning the All-Star Race. Overall, while Larson and his Hendrick teammates probably enjoyed the race, the feedback from crews and fans was less than positive. As I was walking through the garage area and talking to a few crew members, a lot of them were very critical of the 450 horsepower motor and the tall spoiler to try and keep the cars bunched up. When I asked one of the crew-members what he thought about the package he told me, "Oh it's awful. The track is terrible, the package makes it impossible to pass and it's super hot out here." On green flag runs, it was the same as it ever was as the lead car would pretty much take off and the only time there was really any "pack racing" it came after there were restarts. The whole race was well-intentioned and the fans showed up as it was nearly a capacity crowd, but the whole thing just didn't make any sense. From the start time being in the nearly 100 degree heat to the wacky full-field invert at the end of each stage. Let's hope that next season's All-Star Race is a lot more concise.

In Silly Season news this week, Truck Series regulars GMS racing announced that they would be fielding a full-time cup series team. The team is currently owned by Allegiant Airlines CEO Maurice Gallagher and his son, Spencer, who used to drive for them in the Xfinity Series. This move seemed to come from out of nowhere as there was never any indication that this was a move they were exploring anytime soon after they turned down the opportunity to purchase Furniture Row Racing in 2019. This is certainly a great sight for the sport as there will be more new teams on the track and with their close relationship with Chevy, it wouldn't be a surprise if they step in and help this team become competitive. The favorite to drive their car has to be 2020 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Sheldon Creed. He has easily been their best driver in trucks, and it would make the most sense for him to get the promotion.

This week at Nashville, the driver that I have winning is Alex Bowman. Now while this is a brand new racetrack and he has a grand total of zero starts here, this track suits his driving style perfectly. With the inclusion of this track, there are now four tracks with a concrete surface. Nashville, Bristol, Dover and Martinsville. At the three of the tracks they have run at, he has shown a lot of speed, including a victory at Dover this season and a top ten finish at Bristol. This is also a track where crew-chief Greg Ives said Bowman has gravitated towards during testing. In an interview with Sirius XM Ives was quoted as saying "we used to have a lot of fun testing there," so this is clearly a track that they both enjoy going to. Another big factor going into Sunday will be just how fast these Hendrick Motorsports cars are, they have finished 1-2 over the last four points races. He has watched his teammates Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott have immense success, and now this week I think he is due for a third win of the season. Look for the bright purple #48 Chevy to go to victory lane this week at Nashville.

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