My friend Ollie has quit taking his wife to Bucs games. "She's tough; a really with-it woman who volunteers at a drug rehab center," Ollie said. "Carly is far, far from being a prude, but she decided, after we went to the Bucs-Detroit game, that the Big Sombrero's abusive element was too much to stomach. We paid $80 for two seats and witnessed behavior that wouldn't be tolerated in a skid row bar."
Not a new complaint.
"For us, the ruining of a Sunday afternoon was due mainly to three young fellows in the row behind," Ollie continued. "They were deep into alcohol, totally foul-mouthed and acted with no more civility than rabid animals. I twice asked them to tone down. They told me what I could do with my complaint. I was angry, but still too smart to get into a fight with such out-of-control beasts. I found a cop. He shrugged. So we left."
I've heard a multitude of versions. Same story really. Houlihan's hooligans concern Tampa's mayor, Hillsborough's commission, the stadium authority and Bucs management. They've often promised to do better, while explaining difficulties involved.
A Bucs spokesman said complaints about abusive spectator behavior have been received by both the NFL franchise and the stadium authority. No discussions have taken place about possible early cutoffs of alcohol sales, a tactic now used in several pro sports arenas.
"When we were designing the new stadium," said Bucs executive vice president Bryan Glazer, "we thought it extremely important to develop a section that catered specifically to families. We want an area that is alcohol-free and designed so that children and families can enjoy our games in a family environment."
Nobody expects decorum in a football arena to approach that of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Still, authorities should be doing whatever it takes to prohibit the mentality at a sports event from approaching that of the drunk tank at Saturday night jail.
A grandfather named Herm called me in September about a Houlihan's Stadium experience similar to that of Ollie and Carly.
"I took my grandbabies, a girl 7 and a boy 9, to the season opener against San Francisco," Herm said. "They were so excited. But before the first quarter was over, I was livid at beered-up, trash-mouth young fans whose language and attitudes were worse than the R-rated movies I won't allow my darlings to attend. We just had to get out of there. Sadly, my grandkids missed a wonderful game."
This isn't the only ballpark where human garbage reeks. It happens in varying degrees at hundreds of athletic locales. After a few more games, the plug will be pulled on the Sombrero's 25-year life. A lavish new playpen for the Bucs and USF football is rising next door. May it be a far more enjoyable facility for Ollie, Carly, grandpa Herm and thousands of unchronicled others who've been offended and even outraged in the old stadium.
In the interest of setting classier Tampa Bay tones, I wondered about the goals for the grandstand atmosphere at Devil Rays games as Tampa Bay primps for its start in Major League Baseball. Can it be amply exhilarating, highly competitive and wonderfully magnetic while keeping distasteful customer behavior at a minimum?
"You've got my promise that family atmosphere will dominate," Rays managing general partner Vince Naimoli said. "Baseball is not as violent as football, which will help keep emotions at more-acceptable levels. Tropicana Field will have a sophisticated security system, including cameras that allow focusing in on any seat. That should allow bad situations to be handled in a hurry."
Vince has a point. Comparing baseball with football, there are major differences in ferocity and spectator attitudes. For generations, baseball came close to mirroring society. Strong family values. Disciplined pace of sporting emotions. Sincere consideration for those seated nearby. In the 1990s, football has perhaps become a more accurate reflection of a more combative, more abusive new world.
Both sports are my loves. But can't we all get along? Didn't some notable philosopher say that not long after getting battered by nightsticks? It's good that the Devil Rays vow to work at making it more of a family deal. Good that the Bucs say they'll work hard at making it better in their new NFL house. A majority of people is sure to approve. As for the vulgar minority that may not, who cares?