Football Saturdays in the South are about tailgates, bands, cheerleaders and all the pageantry of college football. But sometimes that passion spills over into bad behavior, leading to arrests or ejections from stadiums.
“The fans are passionate about [enjoying themselves] and they come here to do that,” said University of Florida Police Department Major William ‘Brad’ Barber. “It’s our job to make sure they do it safely.”
UF's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, known as "The Swamp," is known as one of the rowdiest places to watch a game in the country.
“We’ve heard some stories,” Texas A&M fan Doug Tadlock said. He traveled from Texas to see the Aggies showdown against the Gators.
“I’ve been to LSU, I’ve been to South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss … We have heard stories of people throwing things and yelling Gator bait,” he said.
Out of the 439,229 people that attended UF’s five home football games in 2016, 150 were ejected and 12 were arrested. Among the infractions listed in reports from the UF Police Department: disorderly conduct, ticket switching, smoking and alcohol possession.
“I think it reflects the approach that we take again to manage these game-day operations,
prioritizing what we should be focusing on and protecting those who attend,” Barber said.
UF ranks 4th among the total arrest and ejections data provided from public universities in the Southeastern Conference. Nationally, UF ranks 8th in ejections.
To find out the extent of the problem, First Coast News and our sister station KGW requested stadium security records from every major college football program.
Across the country, stadium security kicked out thousands of college football fans for illegal consumption or public drunkenness. At least 3,778 fans were ejected during the 2016 football season and at least 1,102 fans were arrested.
According to data, obtained by First Coast News, the University of South Carolina led the nation is arrest and ejections in 2016. The Gamecocks had 496 ejections and 37 arrests, or a 0.92 ejection rate per every 1,000 fans (538,441 people attended South Carolina home games in 2016). The University of Wisconsin had the second highest ejection rate. Oregon, Oregon State and Nebraska round out the top five. Georgia and Florida State round out the top ten. But that doesn't necessarily mean those universities had the rowdiest fans - comparisons are difficult because data and enforcement vary from one school to the next.
No surprise though - most of the misconduct involved alcohol – a common occurrence across the country.
“You couple alcohol with the upped emotions, the intensity, screaming and yelling and you have some potential for issues,” said Brian Baxter, sports psychologist and director of the Sport Psychology Institute Northwest.
According to UFPD reports, at least 53 percent of all ejections involved alcohol, but UF didn’t report any underage drinking ejections last season. (The reports obtained by First Coast News do identify several underage adults that game-day law enforcement cite as being intoxicated.)
One underage female adult was reportedly “severely intoxicated at gate 14. [She] was transported by EMS to the hospital. [She] was unable to stand on own.”
Another underage female was reportedly intoxicated while with her parents. Two people were arrested after using cocaine inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. A few people were found in violation of Ben Hill Griffin’s bag policy.
So what causes people to act out? In addition to alcohol, team pride can also lead to trouble in the stands. “You just lose yourself to the group,” sports psychologist Brian Baxter told KGW.
“Morals kind of erode, your individual responsibility erodes and you are more likely to do something you would never do.”
It is difficult to say whether fan behavior actually has gotten worse or if social media has simply amplified the problem. Online videos with several thousand views show football fans fighting in stadiums and throwing punches during pre-game tailgate parties.
Data from the University of Utah shows ejection rates have actually declined since 2008. The university reported an average of 15.33 ejections per game last season, compared to 22 in 2008.
Utah was the only school to voluntarily provide historical ejection rate data.
For many fans, the drinking begins well before kickoff. Tailgating outside college football stadiums often includes copious amounts of beer, wine and liquor.
Some of have suggested that selling beer inside the stadium might actually help curb the problem. The thought is that people will drink less before games if they know they can drink inside.
UF sells alcohol in select premium seats. According to KGW, the alcohol industry news site VinePair reported in 2015 that 34 college stadiums allowed the sale of alcohol. The number is reportedly growing.
Last season, Ohio State University started selling beer and wine at home games. Ohio State officials said they actually experienced fewer problems with fans than in previous years. In 2016, Ohio State ejected 25 fans, down from 84 in 2015 and 104 in 2014.
“I think people feel like they don’t have to binge drink before the game to keep their buzz. They know they can get a beer inside the stadium,” said Mike Penner, senior associate athletic director for internal operations at Ohio State told KGW. “They’re drinking a little more responsibly.”
In most of the Ohio State stadium, fans are limited to two beers per ID. Fans can only buy one beer per ID near the student section. The policy is intended to prevent beers from being passed on to others, explained Penner. Last season, beer sales topped $1.1 million at Ohio State.
“We think that cut down on people smuggling drinks into the stadium,” said Penner told KGW, who notes there were only four alcohol citations at Ohio Stadium last year, compared to 65 in 2015.
Every few weeks, Ohio State said it receives calls from other schools seeking advice about selling alcohol during football games.
Back in Gainesville, Barber says safety is the number one priority. “When you have a 115,000 people outside and 90,000 inside the stadium, we ask everyone to assist us in reporting suspicious behavior or anything they think we should investigate,” Barber says.
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