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Keith Strudler: The New Stadium Reality

For anyone working for a sports team or league or college athletic department, last Friday in Paris wasn’t simply horrifying. It was an uncomfortable reality, one that would forever impact your daily work life long after the Parisian chaos subsided. See, if you ask someone in the sports world about their worst fear, it’s not a losing season, or a bad trade, or even a critical injury to a star athlete. These things happen all the time, and while burdensome, are simply the cost of doing business.

The worst fear isn’t something that happens on the field. Instead, it’s something that could happen in the stadium or arena. And that fear was nearly realized Friday night when terrorists came uncomfortably close to bringing suicide bombs into Paris National Stadium. One bomber tried to enter and had a ticket, but was turned away after a pat-down by security at the gate. He detonated himself moments later after turning away, mercifully outside the facility instead of directly inside it, where, not coincidentally, the French President was in attendance. Two other suicide bombs went off outside the stadium, killing only one outside the bombers themselves.

Of course, this narrative would have been much different had any of the terrorists entered the stadium. A single, much less multiple detonations inside the facility would have been disastrous, not only for the deaths themselves and the ensuing chaos, but for the loss of innocence that would come with it. For the most part, we’ve considered sports stadiums and arenas a sanctuary from the toils of daily life. It’s where we relax, celebrate, and largely put our collective guard down. In fact, most of us do and say things in stadiums we’d never do outside, from how you talk to how dress to what you eat. Where else other than a sports stadium might complete strangers with full face paint embrace in an emotional hug? That’s normal during a sporting contest.

But Friday’s events remind us that safe space may not truly and forever remain safe. Perhaps a “soft” target, as the term seems to be since they lack political significance, sports facilities regularly congregate thousands – in some cases, even hundreds of thousands – of fans in a contained space. That’s always brought a relative concern, from soccer hooligans to fans rushing the field to poor weather conditions to tires and baseballs flying into the stands. And for each of these conditions, teams and leagues have constructed reasonable policies to minimize the potential risk, risk we largely accept as part of the cost of entry.

Friday’s event is clearly different, and it strike more at the core of the live sports spectating experience, where people put their guard down for while the clock runs.  After Friday, sports fans now don’t simply worry about a hypothetical and complain why they can’t bring a backpack into the stadium. Now they understand the reality of that fear, one rooted far more in reality than we’d like to believe. Where stadiums were once a community, they’re now a place of suspicion. Even the word fanatic takes on an entirely new contextual meaning.

Those that run teams and leagues know this. Domestic abuse and concussions are problems for the NFL. An explosion at a game on national TV is an existential problem, one that could keep fans at home far more than big screen TV’s and bad traffic ever could. And if you think it’s scary in the big leagues, imagine the fear for smaller teams and venues – colleges and universities and even high schools across the country, places that lack the resource to secure a space that might hold several thousand people. In other words, sports administrators are dealing with the potential reality of when, not if.

What does that mean for us, sports fans that see sport as a refuge from real life, yet might no longer have that luxury? What happens when the most popular cheer at a stadium is “see something, say something”? At the very least, it’s a reminder that sport is simply a part of the larger social world around it. Whether it’s race, gender, economics, sport doesn’t exist on an island, even if we wish it so. That goes for politics and terrorism as well.

Beyond that, for myself at least, it’s a reminder that live sporting events are a luxury we too often take for granted. The ability to enjoy movement and passion at its apex, all in its glistening, sweaty height. Remember that next time you go to a football or basketball game. I’ll spend less time cussing the refs and more time appreciating the moment. Because it’s clear, for now, it’s not something we should take for granted.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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