From time to time, dramatic stories emerge of some horrific happening surrounding a sporting event. At Dodger Stadium, a fan wearing San Francisco Giants gear is attacked and maimed. In Europe, soccer hooliganism is legendary and infamous, and even today, stadiums are designed to cordon off “away” fans from the home team supporters.
Yet right here, in Buffalo, the community known as “The City of Good Neighbors” is getting yet another black eye, as awful video taken in the parking lot of Ralph Wilson Stadium this past Sunday, has hit several sport media blogs and has gone viral.
The video depicts a fan, dressed in Bills garb, literally setting himself on fire, while nearby people, almost all male, all wearing Bills gear, and almost all holding a cup in their hands, presumably containing alcohol, cheer the nitwit on.
Thing is, this is not the first time this sort of thing has happened at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Occurrences of fan misbehavior, with alcohol and even drug use fueling the bad acts, has become all too common on game day Sundays in Orchard Park. And it has even resulted in death.
In 2012, a drunken fan was ejected from Ralph Wilson Stadium at a night game in November. From the parking lot, he texted his brother and friends as to the post game meet up spot. Nobody heard from him again and his body was found the next day, face down in a shallow stream a half mile from the stadium.
Then in 2014, another fan decided to slide down the bannister along the upper deck of the sideline balcony. He slipped and fell more than 30 feet, severely injuring another fan who had the misfortune of being in exactly in the wrong spot when the individual hit the ground.
It gets worse. Throughout the season, the public has been deluged with stories in the sports media, most with accompanying videos, of the mayhem happening around Ralph Wilson Stadium; fans dropping off an RV and smashing a table. A couple having sex. Men binge drinking out of long funnels. A bat spin contest involving another drunk fan gone horribly wrong. And each time a video like this goes internet viral, it casts the entire community of Buffalo and Erie County in a horrible light on the national stage.
Are Buffalo fans the worst fans in the NFL when it comes to proper conduct? More on that in a bit.
But to understand the very DNA of the Bills stadium, one has to go all the way back to 1973, when a shiny new stadium then named Rich Stadium opened its doors for the very first time. From 1960 to 1972, the Bills played in a crumbling and decrepit stadium on the city’s east side. Back then, urban flight to the suburbs was in full gear, the neighborhood surrounding “The Old Rockpile” was not safe, especially with race riots going on during a very unstable societal era in our history. So when fans went out to Orchard Park for the very first time in 1973, it was a little slice of heaven.
There was a bright and new stadium in an upscale suburb, surrounded by hundreds of acres of asphalt, where people could come and bring their grills and coolers and safely tailgate and soak in the game day experience.
Tailgate they did, and then came the alcohol. Hard to believe in the era we live in today, that fans could actually carry coolers into the stadium back then. Beer, flasks, hard liquor. It all became an essential part of a day (or night) at a Bills game.
That first night game occurred in 1974, Buffalo’s debut on ABC’s Monday Night Football. The spectacle soon turned ugly, with one fan attempting to do a high wire act across the cable holding up an end zone net. There were multiple cases of fans running onto the field, and back then TV cameras lapped up such scenes, providing said hooligans their 30 seconds of fame. Dozens of fan fights broke in the stands, with green jacketed security people overwhelmed just trying to keep up. Buffalo’s national TV debut on ABC’s wildly popular Monday night show was an embarrassing one, with commentators “Dandy” Don Meredith and Howard Cosell rebuking the Buffalo fans for their poor conduct. The appalling scenes playing out that night even made it to a story in Sports Illustrated.
The in stadium violence went on an on. For decades. Bills management beefed up security, but did little to actually stem fan violence and stop miscreant fans from entering the stadium until just the past few years. Part of the charm of attending a Bills game was not only watching the action on the field, but the fights in the stands. You could set your watch to the inevitability that several melees would take place, especially in the end zone directly underneath the Bills scoreboard.
So back to the main question – are the Bills fans the worst in the NFL when it comes to fan conduct?
This is a very much subjective analysis, culled from our multiple visits to all 31 stadiums in the league, and additionally, games attended at almost 50 separate FBS division 1 college football venues. But based on those experiences, the answer has to be a definitive “Yes”.
Simply put, this sort of despicable behavior does not occur with regularity at any other NFL venue. Not in Philadelphia or Oakland, two cities most noted for their rabid fans and hostility to fans of visiting teams. At the Linc in Philly, tailgating involving open beverage containers and grills is limited to one section of the parking lots. Patrolling and controlling any bad behavior becomes much easier with a smaller footprint. Over in Oakland, several losing seasons has turned “The Black Hole” into a pretty docile place.
Looking at teams noted for their robust tailgate scene – in Green Bay, it seems like the entire state of Wisconsin descends on the small town on football Sundays. There is spirit and camaraderie in the air, fans and even kids are having fun, visitors are warmly welcomed. The entire streetscape feels more like an American Legion summer picnic. Same in Kansas City, where their newly refurbished stadium sits amidst a sea of parking, and the local folks are having fun in a well behaved manor.
Over at Houston’s NRG Stadium, the team actually has a kids area with bounce houses, other rides and a play area to make the tailgate scene family friendly. Guest relations associates with the Texans front office ride around the lots in golf carts, delivering prizes to the best decorated vehicles. Radio stations broadcast from outside the stadium gates. The entire set up is geared towards family fun.
In urban settings, the tailgating is more muted and subdued, just due to lack of large surface parking infrastructure. In places such as New Orleans, Seattle, Indianapolis and Detroit, people tailgate. But fans can also enjoy pre and post game at one of the many bars and bistros offering game day pub fare and drinks specials, or gather in a public area for live music and entertainment. At the Eastern Market near Detroit’s Ford Field, thousands of tailgaters gather amidst old historic buildings and warehouses. It’s an ocean of fun. Nobody is belly flopping off of roofs, nobody is engaging in a sexual act, nobody is imbibing from a funnel, and certainly, nobody is lighting himself on fire.
Well, it looks like Buffalo citizens have had enough, and are demanding that something be done. Social media threads, and responses to news articles about the situation, have been jam packed with people’s own stories of their experiences with violent and boorish behavior. The refrain is very similar – fans who gave up going to games years ago because a few miscreants ruined the experience for everybody, tales of drunkenness and vomit, many saying they would never expose children to such a spectacle.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has taken notice. Poloncarz was handily re-elected to his job this past November, and the county he runs is the owner of the stadium and landlord to the Bills. An avid writer on social media, Poloncarz yesterday commented, “Everyone has a role in making the #Bills game day experience a great one for all. We are better than what we’ve seen recently.” Speaking to the media, Poloncarz promised action, even if to bring the New York State Police in and to possibly step up patrolling of private lots. He minced no words, calling this sort of behavior “the laughing stock of idiocy”.
But will that be enough? Many of those in Buffalo who attend the games and enjoy tailgating in a respectful manor are now expressing fear that the team might take the extreme step of shutting down tailgating altogether. Many private lots surrounding the stadium do offer tailgating venues, however, and closing down tailgates on those private lands would require ordinance changes by the Orchard Park Town Board.
And there is some pushback. One obscure blogger penned “an open letter to Mark Poloncarz” defending the behavior and spectacle Buffalo Bills patrons all been witness to, and suggesting that Poloncarz come join his tailgate and have a beer. Incredibly, this knucklehead said that he doesn’t take his young children to the games, but if he did, and he happened across two people having sex right in front of him and his kids, he would simply turn the other way. Wow. Just wow.
In the end, there are no easy answers or solutions to this problem. Except that law enforcement and team management has to take more stringent matters to crack down on the small number of people who make things miserable for everybody. If it means expelling fans from stadium property, from doing random breathalyzers at the gates to anyone even carrying a container of alcohol, to doubling and even tripling the number of ushers and security at every section, then so be it.
The Buffalo Bills will be entering year four of a ten year lease with Erie County to play at Ralph Wilson Stadium, and there has already been significant discussion and community debate on the long term home of the Bills – whether it be a new stadium downtown or a complete overhaul of the current home, to another option elsewhere. As a community Buffalo has one generational opportunity to get this right. Poloncarz has taken a wise approach about moving slowly, mindful of the community’s financial situation and lack of political will to publicly fund an expensive new stadium. Bills owner Terry Pegula has indicated that at the appropriate time the organization will make plans for its future home, but there is no immediate rush to do so.
Whatever the outcome of this debate, implementing a place of safety, positive fan spirit, a collegial atmosphere, and a center of community pride, rather than community shame and embarrassment, now becomes part of this discussion. The people of Buffalo deserve better. They are a proud community and Buffalo and Erie County is a great place to call home, and it’s getting better by the day. And the overwhelming sentiment in Buffalo today amongst fans is that enough is enough. Bills Nation and Bills Mafia are ready to take back their game day. Stay tuned.
Artvoice sportswriters Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell have traveled to all 31 NFL stadiums as part of their Ultimate Sports Road Trip project which has taken them to hundreds of different sporting events at venues throughout North America and Europe. Find their web site at www.thesportsroadtrip.com