When you buy a ticket to a sporting event, you hope to see a good game. You probably don’t expect to find yourself in the middle of a fight.
You may remember the bloody brawl at the 49ers-Raiders preseason game in August that ended with shots fired and three fans in the hospital. And many also followed details of an opening day fight at Dodgers Stadium that left Giants fan and Santa Cruz resident Bryan Stow with a life-changing brain injury.
Those are just two highly publicized examples of out of control fans. The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit found there are many more that didn’t make the headlines.
“I was punched repeatedly by three distinct individuals,” Manuel Austin Jr. told Chief Investigative Reporter Tony Kovaleski.
The 66-year-old Los Gatos resident went to Candlestick Park to watch the 49ers play the Pittsburgh Steelers in December. It was his first game in seven years.
“The first few strikes hurt a lot,” Austin said, choking back tears. “After that I could feel my head going back and I could see them, but I couldn’t move.”
He suffered a black eye, broken teeth, and a concussion, and said he lost half his hearing in one ear. He believes he is lucky to be alive.
“I can tell you the truth that I thought I was going to die there,” he said. “I really mean that.”
Austin’s son witnessed the first punch, and then defended his father.
“It sounded like a steak hitting the concrete from about two stories up,” said Manuel Austin III. “I will never forget that sound. I believe if I wasn’t there these guys wouldn’t have stopped.”
We obtained police records and discovered hundreds of instances of fan violence at Bay Area sporting events in the past year.
According to data from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, at the Oakland Coliseum last season fans at Raiders games received 87 police citations. There were 144 arrests and 448 ejections.
At AT&T Park, police records show for the 2011 Giants season, there were three assaults, 124 fans booked and 559 ejections.
The reports show that Giants-Dodgers games at the ballpark were especially eventful. There were 26 arrests and 113 ejections during nine Giants-Dodgers games at AT&T Park. Our analysis also found that Friday night games produced more fan-related problems than games on any other day of the week.
Many of the reports detail foul language, a disregard for police orders, and excessive drinking.
“What normally leads to trouble is someone who has too much alcohol because it inhibits their ability to make proper decisions,” said Lt. Bill Roualdes of the San Francisco Police Department. He keeps track of incident reports at all Giants games at the ballpark.
“I believe alcohol (is) one of the main causes for people to do things they normally wouldn’t do under the circumstances,” Roualdes said.
“Is this a real issue in 2012?” Kovaleski asked San Jose Police lieutenant Chris Monahan.
“I think, Tony, it is a real issue that venues need to be aware of,” Lt. Monahan said. “Watching media across the nation we are seeing other fan violence at other sporting events. It’s not just hockey and not just football. So, it is an issue.”
A quick search of fan violence on Youtube produces hundreds of examples. We found videos of fights from New York City to Tampa to Miami. Some commentators on those Youtube videos even describe the phenomenon of fan violence as a troubling epidemic.
“The problem a lot of people have when they get to their favorite sporting event is they probably over-identify with the team,” said sports psychologist Bill Cole. “So I think when people go through those gates, they think, ‘I’m at Disneyland, this isn’t normal life, its special and it’s fantasy-like.’”
“Is it unhealthy when fans get this passionate?” Kovaleski asked Cole.
“I think it is unhealthy,” Cole responded.
Sports sociologist Harry Edwards agrees.
“I think it’s serious because of what it says about where we are as a society and where we are headed as a nation,” he said.
Our analysis of police records found no stadium had more reports of fan violence than Candlestick Park for 49ers games. This past season there were 17 incidents of battery, 201 reported fights and 630 ejections.
According to police records, that December game against the Steelers that the Austins attended was the most violent regular season game of the year. There were 38 fights and 57 ejections.
More than two months later, Manuel Austin Jr. says he is still in pain.
“I don’t like the idea of waking up with a headache in the morning,” he said. “I don’t like throwing up. I don’t like the pain in my back and neck.”
Austin believes the people who beat him up belong behind bars.
Following the fight, the San Francisco Police Department issued only a misdemeanor citation to one of the attackers. Police have continued their investigation into what happened that night. But two months after the incident, no felony criminal charges have been filed.
“So the guys who beat you are only facing a misdemeanor?” NBC Bay Area Chief Investigator Tony Kovaleski asked Austin.
“Yes,” he responded.
“And your life has been turned upside down?” Kovaleski asked.
“Yes,” Austin said.
“Is that justice?” Kovaleski asked.
“In my opinion,” Austin said, “no.”
In a statement, the San Francisco District Attorney told the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit that the fight involving Manuel Austin Jr. remains under investigation:
“As a general rule, our office does not comment on specifics of an ongoing investigation. Our office has requested and is waiting for information from the SFPD in order to make an informed decision regarding whether or not a case should be filed. Every case and investigation is different and requires careful analysis. All of the evidence needs to be looked at in its totality, not in its disparate parts. The circumstances of how the altercation began are in dispute. In a case of mutual combat, we need independent witnesses to help uncover the initial aggressor. If anyone has information regarding this incident, we would ask them to share that with their local police agency.”
The San Francisco 49ers declined our request to discuss Austin’s fight and fan violence on camera, but did provide the following statement:
“The San Francisco 49er are committed to providing a safe game day environment for all fans. That commitment has led to the highest security level rating given by the NFL. Because there is an ongoing police investigation regarding this situation, we will not comment.”
Austin is taking his horrific ordeal and trying to make change. He has sent letters to Congressman Mike Honda, 49ers President and CEO Jed York, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, calling for an end to fan violence.
The Austins hope for the best, but what they experienced at the 49ers Steelers game in December will not be forgotten. Manuel Austin III said that game was his last.
“I’m a huge sports fan, and I’m done,” he said. “You are not going to see me at any 49ers games again. I’ll just watch it from home. At least there I know I won’t get beat up.”
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