— Sun Life Stadium in Miami on Aug. 24 would not have been high on any list of likely terrorist targets.
It was a makeshift twilight doubleheader between the cellar-dwelling Florida Marlins and the disappointing Cincinnati Reds, which officially drew a paid attendance of 22,205 but which attracted only 10 percent of that. So many good sections were empty that one spectator got three foul balls by the third inning of the first game.
And yet, everyone entering the stadium was still subjected to some sort of screening, at least by sight if not by touch. At Gate H, five workers wearing CSC Event Staff shirts asked entrants to take off their hats and open their bags before allowing them through the turnstiles.
“It’s just the way it is,” said Mike Smith, a Pittsburgh Penguins and Steelers season ticket holder passing through South Florida. “It’s just like with the flights. You got used to it.”
This has been the way of the sports world since Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked four planes to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
There are more than 1,800 sports venues in this country, according to WorldStadiums.com. Those present opportunities.
“All you have to do is review open source intelligence, and you’ll see that stadiums definitely remain on the radar as far as terrorist targets,” says James McGee, a former FBI terrorism supervisor and now a senior program manager for The Soufan Group and senior security consultant for The University of Southern Mississippi’s National Center for Spectator Sport Safety and Security.
“There are a multitude of reasons why it would be attractive to a terrorist. The body count if they did strike that type of venue. The VIPs potentially present. The economic impact. The psychological impact. And it may be that what is being celebrated is contrary to a particular ideology. That is why addressing safety and security issues is a prudent thing to do.”
However, the question is whether a clean record since 9/11 — no attack of a sports facility on American soil — has fostered some complacency, as the tragedy becomes more distant.
Are fans safer than they were then?
Many believe so.
"I think they have done enough that I don't worry about it too much," says Michelle Velez, 31, one of those in attendance at the aforementioned Marlins-Reds doubleheader. "Going to a stadium seems a lot safer than going to the mall. Anyone can get in there with anything."
Are fans completely safe, enough to allow those in this field to drop their guard?
You’ll never hear any security official go that far.
“We have to stay on alert,” says Earnell Lucas, a former Milwaukee police captain who joined Major League Baseball in 2002 and was elevated to its top security post in 2008. “I feel very comfortable in this industry and this sport that we are doing everything we can to protect our fan base. We’re constantly looking at ways we can improve, whether in the training and preparation of day-of-game personnel, sharing info with various partners at state, federal, local levels and the employment of technology.”
Lucas speaks not only of the importance of monitoring and updating policies, but of tailoring them, and understanding that “one size doesn’t fit all,” whether all venues or all types of events. The idea, in all cases, is “to employ practices where we are trying to interdict or intervene in problems before they enter into our facility.”
He said MLB still utilizes a program that began well before 9/11, in which at least one contracted law enforcement official known as a Resident Security Agent is stationed at every game to work with the clubs and then report back to the league.
“We have conferences, and we put on an annual conference in security,” Lucas said. “Plus, I spend a lot of time at ballparks across America.”
This fall, Jeff Miller will spend a lot of time in NFL stadiums, watching everything but the games. The former Pennsylvania state police commissioner who has been with the NFL since 2008 and was recently elevated to director of strategic security will keep his eyes on the entrances, the parking areas, the perimeter streets.
“I’m always thinking of what can possibly go wrong,” Miller says. “My biggest relief comes Sunday night at the end of all the games, after everything came off OK.”
To that end, the NFL deploys at least two league security officers to every game, to work with both the visible and undercover law enforcement presence.
“I was in law enforcement on 9/11,” Miller says. “But here at the NFL, the events of 9/11 absolutely changed the way we approach stadium security. (Former NFL commissioner) Paul Tagliabue needs to be given a great deal of credit for immediately understanding situation and assembling a blue-ribbon panel from inside and outside the NFL to establish a set of best practices.”
The Department of Homeland Security agreed, enough to certify the “NFL Best Practices for Stadium Security” in 2008 and, under the SAFETY act, grant full immunity from suit in the event that its security measures fail to prevent a terrorist attack.
“That’s the highest thing they can give you,” Miller says. “They assessed what we do, all the way across. Not that anything is perfect. It’s a free society, so it’s difficult. Americans take for granted sometimes that they should be able to do what they want at any time, not realizing that there are people around the world that don’t operate under the same set of circumstances.”
The NFL’s heightened awareness of that reality was evident at Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans, when the league worked with the Secret Service and built a barrier-backed 3-mile fence around the compound, a model that it has used for its highest-profile event ever since.
“At the Super Bowl, we use everything like an airport, the magnetometers and the dogs,” Miller says. “At regular game, if you do a patdown, and follow the rest of our template, you’ll be in good position.”
How to keep stadiums and teams compliant? Over time, the in-season enforcement has evolved.
“Ever since 2008, we changed to unannounced inspections and reviews, and unannounced follow-up reviews of every stadium,” Miller says. “They have no idea who is coming and when we’re coming, to reassess all parts of our best practices. And (commissioner Roger) Goodell has appointed a standing committee called the Committee on Stadium Security and Fan Conduct, chaired by (Arizona Cardinals owner) Michael Bidwell.”
After the audits, Miller composes a detailed rating and report for each owner, plus recommendations for improvement. The expectations are, in his words, “extremely standardized,” in terms of patdowns, bag checks, credentials, vehicle screening, perimeter security and so on, with the only differences a result of when and where a stadium was built. Those built prior to 9/11 or in an urban area might not require exactly the same measures. For instance, you might not need a particular barrier in a stadium, if a car can’t get up to speed to do damage at a particular turning radius.
Miller also acknowledges that professional leagues face different challenges, and that might lead to a different application of security parameters in the same stadium.
“In other leagues' defense, we have maybe 10 games in a facility per year,” Miller says. “It’s tougher on baseball. It’s tougher on basketball.”
What about colleges?
A college venue, after all, was where America got its closest call since 9/11, even if it wasn’t from someone the FBI would later classify as a terrorist (someone with “a political or social motive"). Whatever his inspiration or intent, Joel Henry Hinrichs III was a frightening threat on Oct. 1, 2005, killing himself in an explosion less than 200 yards west of Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, where 84,501 people were inside watching the halftime of a football game. Oklahoma tightened security in the aftermath and, two years later in concert with the Department of Homeland Security and several other entities, conducted the first stadium emergency drill of its kind in the United States.
“It didn’t get the national media coverage because it didn’t happen inside,” McGee, the expert at Southern Miss and the Souhan Group, says of the Hinrichs incident. “That would have been big game-changer.”
Collegiate venues have been the primary focus of McGee’s domestic work, offering risk assessment workshops to all NCAA institutions, to identify vulnerabilities and educate about resources, such as the Department of Homeland Security’s National Incident Management System.
“The big push, after 9/11, has been to bring everyone on the same sheet of music — federal, state and local,” McGee says.
When it comes to colleges, there was a need to involve the facility managers and especially the athletic departments, whose officials are generally more concerned with the tasks of hiring and winning but who also need to know how to react and respond to a crisis if they find themselves in charge.
McGee's group developed a four-part process. Risk assessment to find gaps. The implementation of training and corrective action. Exercise what has been implemented to see if the corrections worked. Auditing and reassessing.
Why is all of this necessary?
“Terrorists do their homework,” McGee says. “They are taking their time, collecting information, looking and watching to see what your protocols are. They will test your procedures. Bearing that in mind, just having a façade of security in place, that might be a deterrent for the less motivated terrorist or criminal. But the ones who are more motivated, they will test procedures, and realize it’s just a façade.”
So just opening a purse, without digging, can be dangerous.
“This is an investment on the part of the terrorists,” McGee says. “They want to be successful. They will have greater success in a soft target. So it’s critical to make your arena, your stadium at least appear to be a hard target. If they see that, they will move on.”
Michael Steel, 38, is a fan who understands the process of such stadium bag checks.
"I'm probably prejudiced because I'm a cop, but it's important because you get to a point where we can become complacent," Steel said. "But it's hard when you have 70,000 people coming to a stadium. It's hard to check everyone."
McGee works at Southern Miss’ international center in Doha, Qatar, and he has found that some — such as the British — are ahead of Americans in many ways, in terms of stadium design, standard operating procedure and various mandates, a consequence of decades dealing with soccer hooligans.
“Domestically, there’s a pushback against mandates,” McGee says. “No one here wants to be told what to do by government. Whereas in Great Britain, they had some loss of life, and they adopted something called the Green Guide. It’s a very good document. They incorporate into seat design, a buffer zone separating the pitch from spectators.”
McGee also thought highly of the buffer zone he observed at a stadium in Doha, between ticket collection and stadium entrance.
“It’s a good security apparatus to have some tents 100 meters out, and then a soft perimeter fence that you pass through,” McGee says. “That’s where they check purses, go through any search procedures they’ve adopted. If you do seem suspicious, they’ve got 100 meters to watch you.”
Yet he understands that it’s not just the current political climate that makes Americans uneasy with change. It’s the current economic climate, in which expenses matter. And customer comfort is always critical.
“The thing about safety and security at the venue sites, the big desire is transparency,” McGee says. “You want the safety and security in place, but you want it somewhat transparent, so it doesn’t diminish ticket sales. I think the public likes some degree of security, it makes them feel safer, but they don’t want to see the national guard out there.”
It’s tough to find that balance, between reducing risks and friction points. Miller says that, if customer enjoyment was not a concern he could take many further actions. He consider himself “relentless on this topic,” but also realistic.
“Even if we do this stuff with the best of intentions, that doesn’t mean we or law enforcement can stop everything from happening,” Miller says. “Can anyone tell you that anything is 100 percent?”
So what stresses him most? Not the foreign terrorist, not after some of the other measures the American government has taken since 9/11. He’s worried about homegrown violent extremists, Americans who are radicalized over the internet, and get in position to act on their own.
“Lone wolf extremists,” Miller says.
And there needs to be vigilance for all sorts of weapons, from the sophisticated to the simplistic. Terror could come through a vehicle-borne explosive or a suicide vest or an automatic weapon or even a crude bomb.
“We have to stop people from getting in position where they could harm a lot of people,” Miller says. “Some devices are relatively easy and cheap to do, but very deadly and very effective.”
Very scary, right?
Scary enough to stay home?
Generally speaking, McGee believes stadiums are safer than 10 years ago.
“I think that just awareness, if nothing else, has probably enhanced the security," McGee says. "There is still a big gap that exists, but it is significantly better than it was.”