Kalani Simpson

Friday, August 26, 2005

Stadium atmosphere
needs work

LT. Gov. Duke Aiona was telling a story yesterday.

It seems he was sitting in his seat on the aisle at Aloha Stadium one fine Saturday night, when some drunk came rolling by. Yeah, you read that right. Rolling. Thump! Ba-dump! Ka-thunk! Right down the aisle, bouncing off the stairs, still going, hitting every bump. Aiona sits in row 20-something, and the guy started rolling somewhere above him and then went down the rest of them, too, all the way to the bottom. He crashed in a heap against the metal railing that separates the seating from the field.

"He popped up immediately," Aiona told the crowd at yesterday's Stadium Authority meeting to hear testimony on the possibility of banning booze at UH games.

The guy, Aiona said, then sprinted -- full-speed sprinted! -- back up the stairs from where he'd come. Right up to a beer vendor.

Good story.

Mine beats it.

It was the Houston game. In the chaos after the Cougars failed to score in OT, a Houston guy -- injured or redshirt, with his football jersey over street clothes -- went tearing by me at the speed of sound. He had terror in his eyes like I had never seen.

There was just a split second, at that moment, just enough time for half a thought to run through my brain: Eh, how come ...

And then I saw it, just that split second behind him: One of the runners-up from the "Vili look-alike contest," having hopped that fence onto the field (I remember seeing him in the front row earlier in the game), chasing the guy, full speed, brandishing a homemade spear.

We've all seen something like that. We all have our "Aloha Stadium drunk guy" stories.

But the one that was most telling was one Aiona told later. It didn't involve blood or pepper spray or bruises or handcuffs or punches or any of that stuff.

It was just about standing in the concessions line with your kids, with swearing and vulgarity and ugliness and drunkenness and potential craziness all around.

THAT'S the problem. Not the worst-case scenario.

Even if all drinking were abolished, there would probably still be at least one person per season willing to jump off a second-story balcony or take a swing at a cop. Those make great stories. But that's not what I'm worried about.

"Many of the problems we have seen do not amount to a violation of the law," Aiona said yesterday.

He went on to describe people generally ruining the night for everyone else.

"Is that a law violation?" he asked. "Can someone be arrested for that?"

No. And that probably makes it even more of a problem, because you pretty much have to just sit there and take it. So people don't. They stop coming. That's bad.

But instead, yesterday, Aiona and Hawaii interim president David McClain talked time and time again about "public safety." "Public health." This was their mantra, the reason why drinking should go.

I know they need a buzzword and a politically correct campaign slogan. But limiting drinking for "public safety" misses the point -- and Aiona and McClain's own speeches said as much.

Public health? The big problem with drinking at UH football games isn't that the average fan is going to be unsafe -- perhaps injured or caught up in a fracas or something -- at the stadium (although we all know that could certainly happen and we all know steps should be taken to ensure that it doesn't).

The concern that affects far more is the fact that many people are just uncomfortable in the stadium these days. That they simply don't want to be in an atmosphere like that. Don't want to put up with it. Don't want their kids, their families around it.

"In the past two to three years, we've noticed a sharp deterioration in the environment around our seats and in the stadium generally," McClain said in his address to the authority. "... I've watched as our inebriated fans have harassed fans from other universities, while I've been in their seating area bidding welcome to presidents of those universities. ... "

We're fretting about the riots and the fights, the knockout punches -- and we should -- but meanwhile the stadium crowd is dwindling thanks to 1,000 paper cuts.

The occasional beef way off in Section CC isn't as much of a deterrent as what's all around you, every game.

New authority member Marcia Klompus likened it to going to the movie theater: "You should feel safe, you should feel comfortable." You should be able to relax and enjoy the experience.

More and more, people can't.

UH alum Dirk Soma doesn't blame drinking. He blames his alma mater. Yesterday, he bristled with anger: "An environment has been created that incites fans," he said.

"We have to look within ourselves," he said.

The worst-case public-safety scenario is just that -- the worst case, certainly. But it's the everyday atmosphere that's becoming too much to bear.

"We need to come out of denial, first of all, that we have a problem at this stadium," Aiona said.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Kalani Simpson can be reached at ksimpson@starbulletin.com

E-mail to Sports Desk


© Honolulu Star-Bulletin -- http://archives.starbulletin.com