Still widely regarded as prime terrorism targets, stadiums and arenas must adhere to post-9/11 security vigilance at the turnstiles and beyond.
The blast could be heard clearly inside Memorial Stadium, where 84,501 football fans had gathered last October to watch the University of Oklahoma play host to Kansas State. Reverberations beyond the OU campus, meanwhile, have been shockingly minimal.
Just what took place within earshot of so many Sooners on that mild night in Norman remains a mystery to most. Junior mechanical engineering major Joel Hinrichs III, perhaps the only person who could say for sure, is dead of his own device - a three-pound bomb believed to be made out of triacetone triperoxide, a volatile explosive known as "Mother of Satan."
Hinrichs blew himself up on a park bench within 200 yards of the stadium, in an area known as the South Oval. The FBI, which investigated the incident, issued a bulletin the next day advising facility managers elsewhere to step up their security awareness at upcoming games. But whether or not Hinrichs meant for others to die with him is not entirely clear. "I believe he went for a large open space where he wouldn't harm anyone but himself," Hinrichs' father, Joel Hinrichs Jr., told The Oklahoma Daily student newspaper two days after the bombing. "He was aware of the fact that he was going to make an indelible impression on 85,000 football fans. He might have said, 'That's you, this is me, good-bye.' But I'm just speculating. He's not here to say if I'm right or not."
Despite a dearth of national media coverage regarding the incident, there has been plenty of speculation in the seven months since. For reasons that should be obvious, the university was quick to judge the matter a suicide - the act of a lonely, frequently depressed student. However, the Northeast Intelligence Network, a web site founded by private investigator Douglas Hagmann (homelandsecurityus.com), reported in March that a local law enforcement official involved in the Hinrichs bombing investigation is "disgusted that the truth is being withheld from the public." This official, described by Hagmann as "confidential but wellvetted," went on to state, "This was a premeditated act of terrorism that involved more than Hinrichs and was supposed to kill and hurt a lot of people."
In Hagmann's coverage of the case, he attributes to local media outlets eyewitness accounts that allege Hinrichs tried to enter Memorial Stadium with a backpack, but then took off running at the prospect his bag would come under search. Hagmann also relays reports that the bag was filled with nails, nuts and other debris commonly used to maximize collateral damage in suicide bombings. Moreover, additional bombmaking materials were discovered at Hinrichs' apartment. Larry Naifeh, OU's executive associate athletic director, would not comment on these reports when contacted by AB in March.
Did Hinrichs succeed in a solitary act of desperation or fail at one far more despicable? The general public may never know the answer. Stadium and arena operators, at least, may be well-served to assume the worst.
Assuming the worst has become routine protocol in stadium and arena security these days. In March, a bomb-sniffing dog detected something unusual on a concessions cart at Cox Arena in San Diego, site of a first-round NCAA men's basketball tournament game between Marquette and Alabama. And while the alarm proved false, and the only damage done was an 80-minute delay during which the arena was cleared and fans were herded across the street, the NCAA remained unapologetic. Said the association in a statement later that day, "We will continue to remain vigilant in our security planning throughout our tournament, and the safety and security of our student-athletes, teams and fans is paramount."
One would be hard-pressed to find a stadium or arena manager who doesn't agree, particularly in the post-9/11 United States. However, for some, getting to a point of paramount security, much less something approaching terror-proof, is a constant balancing act pitting due diligence against limited budgets. "There's no question that people are making considerable efforts," says Ben Goss, assistant professor of management at Missouri State University. "Facility operators can't help but believe that their buildings would be classified as very desirable targets. As a result, I believe that they're doing practically everything that their budgets will allow them to do."
"We've moved from a service economy to an experience economy, and sports is the epitome of that experience economy," adds Colby Jubenville, an associate professor of sports management at Middle Tennessee State University who has coauthored with Goss several papers on sports venue security. "The challenge for facility managers who handle security and risk management is balancing the experience with providing a safe and secure environment."
The change in this country's collective security mind-set came mere moments after the World Trade Center towers fell. Before the next games on the 2001 football schedule took place in venues as diverse as the University of Tennessee's Neyland Stadium (capacity 104,000) and the University of Delaware's Tubby Raymond Field (capacity 22,000), upgraded security measures - including the prohibition of carry-in bags of any kind - were clearly communicated to fans. Within days, the International Association of Assembly Managers had formed a Safety and Security Task Force that months later would release to members a comprehensive guide highlighting best practices in venue security.
And evidence exists of continued diligence. In August 2004, IAAM's inaugural Academy for Venue Safety & Security convened in Dallas, where 85 facility managers were trained on the use of a risk-management software module addressing such scenarios as bomb threats, fan violence and natural disasters (shelter management has been a best-practices focus in the wake of Hurricane Katrina). "It's an in-depth boot camp," IAAM marketing manager Kim Cook says of the event, which is now held in Dallas every August at the American Airlines Training & Conference Center.
In January 2005, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, following IAAM's lead and its own airport security template, announced the development of the first online self-assessment tool for stadiums with seating capacities of 30,000 or more (more than 400 such facilities exist in the United States). An arena version followed three months later, and in October of that year, DHS granted the IAAM Foundation $750,000 to raise awareness of these tools, as well as to strengthen new and existing programs.
Meanwhile, separate but related studies conducted by researchers at Springfield (Mass.) College and Clemson University assessed the collective vulnerabilities of America's sports venues. The Springfield study, released in 2003, examined security practices among the four major professional sports leagues, created a 38-point security checklist and applied it to football stadiums and basketball arenas in the NCAA's Division I. Measures represented on the checklist ranged from bomb-sniffing dogs to photo identification and zone passes for employees. The study found that schools achieved an average preparedness level of 75 percent when compared to the researchers' checklist, with collegiate football stadiums coming closest in terms of security to their pro counterparts.
Taking into consideration the Springfield study, as well as the best practices outlined by IAAM, Clemson researchers in the summer of 2004 surveyed preparedness among IAAM members who manage campus-based venues of 3,000 or more seats. It then broke down the sample into groups representing markets of more than 250,000 residents and fewer than 250,000. Using a Likert scale - with numeric value assigned to responses ranging from "no emphasis" to "we feature this" - the facility managers reported their own approaches to security measures, which closely resembled those found on the Springfield College checklist. The study revealed that there was no significant difference in preparedness between large- and small-market venues - deficiencies existed across the board.
It's a result that Goss, who chaired the committee overseeing the Clemson research, doesn't find particularly surprising, considering large-market venues host larger crowds per event and more events per year, and that all that traffic adds up to greater operational and capital-improvement investments. Security budgets often suffer as a result. "That seems to be the catch-22 of the 21st century when it comes to venue management in large markets," Goss says. "You have greater expenses, but at the same time you have to try to constantly upgrade to meet security threats. It's a severe problem for management."
A third institution has attempted to customize available security tools in the interest of creating what it calls a National Standardized Model for University Sports Event Security. In the process of evaluating its own security strengths and weaknesses, the University of Southern Mississippi caught the attention of the Mississippi Office of Homeland Security, which last year granted USM $568,000 to conduct similar evaluations at seven additional schools in the state. According to Walter Cooper, operations director at USM's Center for Research and Education, these external assessments involved extensive interviews and observations, as well as unannounced, real-time gameday audits. "We did a gameday audit at all seven institutions and found that in many instances, the processes and systems that people thought were in place were not necessarily in place," Cooper says, pointing to shortcomings in areas related to bag checks, credentialing and emergency response plans.
Positives were also found. One school took the now common facility lockdown concept a step further by changing the padlocks on all gates the day before games, then switching back to locks to which keys are abundant among staff.
According to University of New Haven sports management professor Gil Fried, who co-authored the IAAM academy curriculum, entrusting staff members with unsupervised facility access is always a delicate issue. "Oftentimes, we have people who are paid very minimal amounts, and we're asking them to implement security for us," Fried says. "And while we can have wonderful plans, if these people aren't trained well or empowered with their charge - 'This is what I'm doing and this is why it's so important' - the best-laid security plan is worth very little."
Security plans that pass muster with Southern Miss will earn what Cooper calls a "Sports Event Security Aware" seal of approval, suitable for display at each deserving sports venue on any given campus.
Whether or not the University of Oklahoma is seal-worthy remains to be seen. But even as the drama of October's bombing unfolded, OU had in place at Memorial Stadium many widely accepted security safeguards, including some 100 surveillance cameras, baggage checkpoints at stadium gates, onsite bomb-detection equipment and dogs, and concrete planters and other bollards to barricade the stadium perimeter from vehicular traffic. After the blast, the west side of the stadium was locked down for additional surveillance before an "all clear" was issued. Fans were informed of developments over the stadium PA system even as the game continued.
According to Naifeh, a review two years ago of OU's security protocols by state and national Homeland Security officials, as well as weekly internal game-operations meetings, proved particularly valuable in hindsight. "You can begin to wonder if you're talking about things that couldn't possibly occur," Naifeh says. "When we went through this experience, the fact that we had consistently talked about what to do and where to go and what to say in the line of communication was helpful. While sometimes it seems that you're monotonous in your repetition, that's the best way to ensure that everybody is prepared."
Then there are those rare sporting events that push the security envelope almost beyond comprehension. At the Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy, there were nearly six times as many police officers and soldiers - from surveillance plane pilots to snipers - as competing athletes.
Security at Super Bowl XL in Detroit was so tight, it became a top news story, receiving an estimated 75 percent of all print media coverage leading up to the actual game. The collaborative efforts of officials from NFL security, the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service, and the Washington, D.C., and Wayne County offices of Homeland Security, not to mention local and state police, left little to chance. Measures implemented included patrolling the Detroit River, located five minutes from Ford Field, with some 30 Coast Guard boats, as well as divers who provided continuous surveillance of the water for two solid weeks in advance of and through the game. Meanwhile, planes and helicopters canvassed the sky for several miles in all directions. At the stadium, three-dimensional holographic technology 17 years in development made its debut, enhancing the capabilities of existing equipment used for facial recognition and vehicle searches. Says Intrepid Security CEO Jim Fischbach, who as manufacturer of the 3-D technology used in Detroit was onsite to oversee its implementation, "The number of people involved in security was so overwhelming, it would not have been a good day to be a terrorist."
When asked if he thought terrorists could still penetrate such high-profile events in these times of such heightened security, Fischbach says, "I think it's possible to beat the system, but if you beat the system, you're going to beat it in a minimized way. You're not going to create a World Trade Center disaster. You're not going to create the collapse of Ford Field."
At least one security expert believes that those entrusted with venue security spend too much time and money engaging in what he calls "movie plot" guessing games, and that resources often could be better allocated elsewhere. "If you spend $1.7 billion on security at the Olympics, and nobody tries to bomb the Olympics, you've wasted your money," says Bruce Schneier, author of Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World. "If you spend that same amount of money on Arabic translators or CIA agents, it's valuable, regardless of what the terrorists plan. I don't like security that makes us have to try to guess correctly. 'It'll be the NCAA tournament.' I just made a guess. Maybe I'm right, maybe I'm wrong. Most likely, I'm wrong."
In April 2004, British and American antiterrorism authorities made an educated guess - and guessed right. A massive surveillance operation helped foil a plot to bomb Old Trafford soccer stadium, where Manchester United was to host rival Liverpool later in the week. Among the intelligence gathered was knowledge that suspected Islamic extremists had purchased tickets in widespread areas of the stadium. Dawn raids led to 10 arrests, and the game was played as scheduled a mere five days later before 67,000 fans and an international television audience.
Schneier, who authored a brief on behalf of a fan challenging the constitutionality of pat-down searches outside Tampa's Raymond James Stadium, is most bewildered by gameday security measures - many of which constitute "security theater" in his mind. "You prevent attacks through intelligence and investigation," Schneier says. "By the time you're to the last line of defense at the stadium, you're too late. The guy blows himself up in a long line at a security checkpoint."
Or runs in the other direction. It's that one chance in a hundred - or a thousand, or a million - that makes every effort worth it, according to most who study security. It's worth it even if it means 80,000 ticket-holders must stop inside the turnstiles and surrender themselves, however briefly, to the patting hands of security personnel.
"My response to that would be, 'Get used to it.' Thank God we have people who see the importance of that and are willing to do that when there are things happening in Oklahoma that we don't know about," says Jubenville, adding that an act of sports venue terrorism is all but inevitable. "I don't think it's a matter of if; I think it's a matter of when. I think that's where we are. And it will forever change the face of college athletics, professional athletics, athletics in general, when that day comes."