Remember those thick backpacks filled with blankets, peanuts, beverages and sun screen that we toted to watch our favorite professional teams? Those are now being swapped out for small, clear plastic bags that can be easily checked for harmful materials like guns, flares and bombs. We have seen our comfortable trip to the ballpark, courts or field reinterpreted as possible battlegrounds, and I’m not talking about the competition between teams. While the chances of anything negative happening (except maybe the Vikings beating the Packers) are low, authorities would rather err toward protection. This level of security hasn’t reached most of youth soccer, but it’s not inconceivable that we may find ourselves needing to reconsider complete openness at large tournaments.
Last week at the French Open, two protestors charged the courts during the men’s final. These jerks were actually fairly harmless since they were shirtless, wore masks, and carried flares, but the effect on the match was anything but harmless. Rafa Nadal had two double faults on his service game following the demonstration and his competition David Ferrer, who had been struggling anyway, found himself making several mental errors. It took at least three games before the players could settle back in, stop thinking about a possible attack from behind, and focus on the finals. In 1993, Monica Seles was stabbed in the back during a quarterfinal match in Hamburg. The attack kept her off the court for two years, not due to the actual injury but due to the psychological impact. She never returned to her old form.
Two months ago, we witnessed the horrifying bombing of fans cheering runners to the finish line at the Boston Marathon. This week, the Rock and Soul race in Milwaukee announced heightened security for the event, including no backpacks or athletic bags. Instead, at registration this week for the race each runner was given a plastic bag that will be the only authorized container for their clothing and gear. Spectators will be limited to bringing their belongings in a quart-size bag. Every bag will get a sticker to show that it has been inspected and there will be three check points before anyone can enter the race course. We will certainly see more of this as time goes on.
The NFL recently announced its own plans to limit what spectators can bring into the stadium. Not so long ago, the biggest "contraband" most fans tried to smuggle in was alcohol and food. Most security checkpoints politely looked the other way. But now fans will be limited to a 12-inch clear plastic bag or a clutch purse no bigger than your hand, difficult to stuff a six-pack into, but also difficult to hide any weapons or dangerous items. We are being asked to trade-off our ability to break the rules in favor of greater safety. The Green Bay Packers will enforce these new measures, but I’m just wondering how they’ll handle the bundled up fans who come for the December games in negative-20-degree weather. In the summer, it’s easier to see if someone has heavy pockets, but not so easy if someone is dressed like the Michelin Man.
Right now, Major League Baseball doesn’t have an across the board policy, leaving those decisions up to the individual clubs. When I recently attended a Brewers’ game with my visiting brother, I managed to bring in a bag stuffed full of peanuts, sunflower seeds, jackets and blankets. All the security guy did was pat down the bag from the outside, shake it a bit, and usher me right through the turnstile. I must have either an incredibly honest face or a face that looks way too old to cause mischief. I hope it was the former. In any case, people were moving through security fairly quickly and easily with little concern for what they were carrying. I’m happy that the Brewers’ organization feels Milwaukeeans wouldn’t attempt anything dangerous, but I also hope they won’t end up closing the proverbial barn door after the horse gets out.
What does this all mean for youth sports? There will be greater caution, certainly at the larger gatherings such as state high school tournaments, state, regional, and national events, and huge tournaments. Because so many of these events are held in wide-open spaces, it makes it difficult to control ingress and egress. Therefore, restrictions can’t be enforced unless security fences and gates are erected. Right now, the number of youth sport competitions enforcing more stringent controls are few, but the growing push for greater security will end up increasing both costs and inconveniences for young players and their families already strapped with high fees and travel costs. It’s an unfortunate sign of the times that clubs and organizations will have to add security committees to their planning boards. Most clubs have enough trouble ensuring the medical safety of players by having trainers on site and making sure that support personnel like ambulances and police are on notice that the event is on-going. Adding other security could make some tournaments unmanageable.
Our kids are astute enough to know that acts of violence and terrorism have increased. Part of that knowledge comes from our media savvy kids tweeting, texting, Facebooking and web surfing. We parents can’t really shield our kids from these unrelenting news stories, which are often sensationalized in order to keep them fresh and keep viewers hooked. So we need to address them head-on by pointing out how seriously authorities take these incidents. When we get delayed entering a sporting event, concert, amusement park or rally, we can take the opportunity to point out that the delay is helping insure everyone’s safety. It’s difficult to think that an enjoyable family outing could be interrupted by aggression. Such random acts of violence have been happening since recorded history, but we have the ability to know not only instantly about terror, but to have it splashed across our TVs, computers and smart phones rather than reading about it a week later in the paper or have a news bulletin on our radios. So it may seem as if danger is all around us even though it is still a rare occurrence. Our kids don’t have the context of understanding statistics and margins, so to them these acts are always just around the corner. Therefore, additional security should add some peace to their lives, but also brings home the possibility of risk.
If youth sports find it necessary to add more security to the larger events they sponsor then we need to be tolerant of the new requirements. Even though the chances are minute that we would be victims of thug or terrorist attacks we still need to be vigilant. The inconveniences can be outweighed by a greater protective confidence. With all the hubbub over the NSA telephone and computer monitoring, we can lose sight of how complex the aspects of keeping this large nation secure can be. Our freedoms create some vulnerabilities, so finding a balance between openness and restriction can be difficult. We often choose accessibility over limitations. The discussion will continue as long as terror exists. There is no easy answer, so some groups will err to the side of protection while others will opt for looseness. The day may come when even the games of the youngest players will be subject to bag searches and check-points. We can hope it doesn’t come to that, but we need to understand why it might. While some may call this paranoia, others will call it caution. No matter how we feel about these added security measures, we need to accept that due to a heightened sense of threat governments, organizations, schools, shopping malls, sports venues, and houses of worship may elect for stronger protective protocols. Let our kids know that a few simple steps can mean a safer environment for everyone. That’s going to be the new normal.