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S.L. Price
April 28, 2003
Ten years after Monica Sales was stabbed, security is tight throughout professional sports, but are athletes really any safer from increasingly belligerent spectators?
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April 28, 2003

When Fans Attack

Ten years after Monica Sales was stabbed, security is tight throughout professional sports, but are athletes really any safer from increasingly belligerent spectators?

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There's no need to wonder. Last Saturday, in the fifth inning of a game between the Oakland A's and the Texas Rangers at Network Associates Coliseum, a man in the stands threw a cellphone at Rangers outfielder Carl Everett and hit him in the back of the head. And in September 1999 a 23-year-old man in Milwaukee jumped into rightfield and attacked the Houston Astros' Bill Spiers, bloodying his nose and giving him whiplash.

Baseball may be the most bruised by such episodes, but no sport has avoided instances of fans' getting too close to the athletes for comfort. One night last month at Madison Square Garden the designer Calvin Klein got up from his courtside seat, ambled over to Knicks swingman Latrell Sprewell—who was about to inbound the ball—and muttered to him before security arrived. "Behind the bench in some places, fans could just jump right out," says Kings forward Chris Webber. "They'd get stopped, but only after they inflicted some pain."

The NFL has never had an on-field intrusion like November's at a Canadian Football League game in Winnipeg, when a 22-year-old construction worker leaped on the back of British Columbia Lions cornerback Eric Carter in the waning seconds of the match. Still, even the best-oiled security machine breaks down. On Jan. 11, just before halftime of the Eagles-Falcons playoff game at Philadelphia's Veterans' Stadium, a New Jersey exterminator named Daniel Flagg asked a security guard how to get down on the field. "Yo, when I turn my head, I don't see anything," the guard said. Flagg ended up in front of the Eagles' bench. He sat down next to running back Duce Staley, then next to quarterback Donovan McNabb. "I could've punched [ McNabb] in his face," says Flagg. "I just wanted to meet him. The next guy could be crazy."

Since 1993, of course, no sport has wrestled more with that possibility than tennis. The NASDAQ-100 tournament in Key Biscayne, Fla., received death threats against chairman Butch Buchholz and player Boris Becker in the mid-'90s, and a man stalking Martina Hingis was arrested there in 2000. In the last decade four No. 1 players have faced nightmare scenarios: Parche had harassed Graf before Seles; Hingis's stalker, Dubravko Rajcevic, was sentenced to two years in jail; and last summer police in both London and New York City arrested Albrecht Stromeyer, who had trailed Serena Williams for months. In New York, Stromeyer pleaded guilty to fourth-degree stalking and was discharged.

Players say protection is especially weak at smaller tournaments, but they also point to security breakdowns at the majors, such as last year's Wimbledon, where interlopers twice made it onto Centre Court. "We walk out [alone] toward the practice court, and everybody knows where we practice," Lindsay Davenport said in March at the Indian Wells ( Calif.) tournament. "Every tournament is like that. At the Australian Open we were walking out to the court for doubles matches by ourselves. Nobody escorted us."

Seles hesitates to speak about the issue. She doesn't want to sound shrill or to give ideas to some half-wit. "For me it's a no-win situation," she said last month at the NASDAQ-100. "But they have to do something. We have venues that are horrible."

The most vulnerable athletes, according to security experts, are golfers. The size of the courses, the porousness of their perimeters and the proximity of fans present challenges that no other sport faces. "Golf allows spectators around the greens, the fairways, and there are no barriers," says Richard Bower, who provides security for Indian Wells and for golf tournaments in Palm Springs, Calif. "It's wide open."

It's not an issue the PGA Tour cares to discuss. Understandable: The Tour is charged with protecting Tiger Woods, who has spent most of his career shadowed by guards. In 1997 someone made a much-publicized death threat against him before the Masters, and rumors of similar threats have been common ever since.

On fairways Woods is fairly easy to protect. He doesn't chat with fans, he walks away from the ropes, he rarely stops moving. On the first day of this year's Masters, however, Woods had to stop. Rain canceled play on Thursday, and Friday's combined first and second rounds caused backups on every tee. Woods, who had received yet another threat, was pinned down and close to the crowd. Two beefy men had been assigned to protect him. "It's the same thing every year," said an official with the Augusta sheriff's department. "Some idiot phones in a threat, and we've got to walk with him."

Add to that the usual Masters detail of Pinkerton guards and a contingent of plainclothes agents mixed into the crowd. Yet when Woods walked to the 4th tee, which was flanked on two sides by hundreds of fans, no guard walked the five-foot stretch between Woods and the spectators. At the 6th tee Woods sat on a split-log bench, his back just two feet from the only barrier: a pencil-thin green-and-white rope. The crowd pressing behind him was an arm's length away. From there it was easy to study the stitching in Woods's black cap. It was easy, for long minutes, to study his back as it rose and fell with his breathing.

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