If any segment of sports fans should be hyper-aware of fan violence, you'd think it might be those in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Less than five months ago, the region was rattled by the vicious beating of Bryan Stow, a Giants fan and local paramedic who was assaulted at Dodgers Stadium on opening day. For five months, his halting progress from a traumatic brain injury has been a regular staple of both news and sports updates.
But apparently that shocking incident didn't make an impression on everyone. Maybe that would be expecting too much from a twisted subset of society intent on causing mayhem and intimidation at what are supposed to be entertainment events.
On Saturday night, during the 49ers-Raiders preseason game, two men were shot in the parking lot outside Candlestick Park, and another was severely beaten inside a stadium restroom. Videos posted online and anecdotal evidence from eye witnesses portray a chaotic night of fights -- both inside and outside the stadiums -- at a poorly attended game.
The victims were upgraded to fair condition. The police are investigating. And now comes the damage control. Jed York, president of the 49ers, decried the violence and said that he was requesting that the NFL suspend the annual preseason series with the Raiders.
"This is not going to be tolerated," York said at a news conference at Candlestick, sitting under a sign that said, in part: "We will strive to provide a safe and secure environment for all fans attending our games."
The San Francisco Chief of Police Greg Suhr called Saturday's game an aberration and cited a rash of crime statistics that far exceeded other 49ers games, despite an increased police presence. He also suggested that a 5 p.m. start time may have been a problem.
Raiders CEO Amy Trask warned in radio interviews against stereotyping any fan base (namely hers) as troublemakers.
The 49ers instituted new policies including banning tailgating during and after the game and DUI checkpoints. They also will continue a previous policy of revoking the season tickets of anyone causing trouble and holding season-ticket holders accountable to who they resell their tickets to.
Will the problem be solved? Can the problem be solved?
York lays most of the blame on the preseason games, when season-ticket holders give away their worthless tickets, and the people who show up have no vested interest in their seats, their neighbors or making the game an enjoyable experience.
(York, more than once on Monday, made the case that the lack of interest in preseason games was part of the appeal of an 18-game schedule, an odd tangential observation that seemed to equate lower fan violence with increased player risk).
Yes, preseason games can get ugly. But increasingly, NFL regular season games have become a venue for violence and intimidation where, too often, fans are made to feel they can't express allegiances without being hassled or worse. The problem for the league is that more and more fans may opt out of the highly charged, alcohol-fueled (and expensive) stadium atmosphere for their home television set, affordable refreshments and choice of company.
Could the fallout from Saturday be Dodger-esque for the 49ers? Ever since the early-season fan violence, the Dodgers have played in front of small crowds, though the Stow incident was just one negative for a team rife with them this season.
York said he wasn't concerned with that, but some NFL fans in the Bay Area are already voting with their feet. That's part of the problem: bad teams beget bad fans. The 49ers and Raiders have been in decline for years. There isn't a strong season-ticket base to create a self-policing culture. There isn't enough balance to the cost-reward ratio. There's a lot of ambient anger in the air.
The Raiders have publicly fought against their stereotype as the favorite team of gangbangers, a reputation that was cultivated in the Los Angeles Coliseum and came along when the team moved back to Oakland , bringing an element that wasn't there in the 1970s. Without a large season-ticket base, Raiders games attract a more transient population; local blackouts make the games less-desirable events. Though the stadium experience has been improved in recent years, the Raiders have only sold out two home games in the past two seasons.
The 49ers haven't suffered a blackout but have teetered on the edge, far removed from the days of a ten-year season-ticket waiting list. Once known for having "wine-and-cheese" fans, who threw elaborate tailgates and had a neighborly relationship with the people in their section, the current crowds are smaller, younger and increasingly frustrated by their team's lack of success. Like the Raiders, the 49ers fan base is less stable. And Candlestick -- like the Oakland Coliseum -- is one of the worst stadiums in the league, a dump that degrades the overall game-day experience.
Stopping a preseason game between two neighboring teams is a reaction but not likely a solution. At this point it is unclear if the violence was caused by something as simple as different team colors. While there may be a special animosity between neighboring NFL teams like the Raiders and 49ers, the problem runs deeper.
Increased security is the best solution: the NFL and its owners are awash in money. They need to take some of those profits from alcohol sales and put them back into protecting their clients.
Of course, one of the best ways to improve the game-day experience is to build a new stadium that provides comfort and a certain level of civility. That's something that both the 49ers and the Raiders have been trying to do for years. The most cost-effective way to do that is for them to share a stadium.
Both teams have 5 p.m. games this weekend at their respective stadiums. Has the twisted subset gotten the message about fan violence now?