Rethinking Sports Security in Wake of Boston Bombings

Paul Steinbach Headshot

In 20/20 hindsight, it is seen as the perfect target. The Boston Marathon represents an iconic, international sporting event on American soil, while lacking the kind of security perimeter and protocols that have hardened so many U.S. stadiums and arenas.

In the week following the fatal bombings in Boston, security experts appeared to agree that so much progress has been made in securing traditional sporting venues that open-access events such as marathons have become all the more attractive to terrorists by comparison. "We've been working so hard on stadiums and arenas," Lou Marciani, director of The National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security at Southern Mississippi University, told AB on Friday. "When someone asked me, I think it was Tuesday, if I ever thought something would happen at a marathon, my first reaction was I thought it was going to happen at a stadium. But then I slept on it, and I woke up and realized that I said the wrong thing, because if you look at the progress of things, the harder the venue, the less one has an appetite for something like that. I should have said, and I'll say this to you today, I'm not surprised that it was a softer target."

Clark Kent Ervin left the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2004 and wrote Open Target: Where America is Vulnerable to Attack, published in 2006. Speaking on MSNBC on Saturday, the current director of The Aspen Institute's Homeland Security Program said, "I worried aloud in that book about the possibility - indeed, probability, ultimately - of soft-target attacks, simply because they're less well protected, obviously, than hard targets, like military installations, iconic government buildings, etc. And an irony is, the harder we harden hard targets, the more likely it is that terrorists will explore our vulnerabilities with soft targets, like sports venues and entertainment complexes, shopping centers. That said, of course, we are a free and open society. We don't want to change our way of life. There is a limited amount that we can do to protect ourselves against these kinds of threats. I'm afraid this is a danger that we're going to have to live with now that we're in the era of soft-target attacks in the United States."

Some believe there is more we can do. The London Marathon increased its security presence by 40 percent over the weekend, and the event took place without incident. But more officers aren't necessarily enough, according to Ben Goss, associate professor of management at Missouri State University and author of numerous articles on venue security. "Now more than ever, we have to take a page from the European event management playbook and start beefing up closed-circuit television monitoring in a very, very big way," Goss says. "It needs to be widespread, effective, cutting-edge and visible, because it's a fact that people behave better when they know they're being watched. Some folks who live in the past will say that such an approach violates their constitutional freedoms, but when Google Maps can zoom into your backyard from space, I'd say that cow has already left the barn, and it's time to start using CCTV to its fullest potential."

It was surveillance video that identified the Boston bombing suspects, but they were either oblivious to that possibility or undeterred. Reports also indicate that the marathon's finish line area had been canvassed by bomb-sniffing dogs earlier in the day, yet the attackers merely waited for them to leave the scene. "Part of this ramp-up of city-based event security needs to include the increased presence of law-enforcement canines, whether they're actually bomb-sniffing dogs or not," Goss insists. "The mere presence of such an animal and the possibilities of law enforcement it can provide might be enough to thwart an attack."

Marciani envisions a scenario in which at least some of a marathon's 26.2 miles are hardened in yet another way. "I do see start and finish areas that would be credentialed - something like New Year's Eve, where you are credentialed before you get into Times Square," he says. "I do see that as a possible solution or a possible enhancement to the protocols."

More informed decisions may hinge on what, if anything, authorities can determine as to motive behind the Boston bombings. In their wake, Marciani has added a discussion of security at open-access events to the itinerary of the 2013 National Sports Safety and Security Conference & Exposition, scheduled for July 16-18 in Orlando, Fla. "We're looking at maintaining safety and security at open-access sporting events - different challenges, same principles," he says. "So we're going to be able to take a look at what happened and then really get into this and go from there."

Not to be overlooked is a line of defense stemming from the very sense of community that sporting events - particularly marathons - foster. "The message to attendees needs to be repeated often, loudly and clearly: If you see something, say something," says Goss, who also advocates plain-clothes security personnel infiltrating crowds of marathon watchers. "Police and technology are not a foolproof web, nor are they a substitute for concerned citizens. As law enforcement, I'd rather face a jury in a courtroom for a lawsuit because I was a little on the heavy-handed and proactive side than face a mass scene of chaos like what happened in Boston."

No matter what future protocols are put in place in Boston and elsewhere, the carnage witnessed a week ago no doubt changed how future open-access sporting events will viewed from a security standpoint. "People and organizations change for two reasons: pain or potential," says Middle Tennessee State professor Colby Jubenville, who in 2011 co-authored with Goss an article for the International Association of Venue Managers titled The Post-Bin Laden Era: Where Do We Go From Here? "In this case, the pain will be so great that a new level of security will emerge. And sport will be better for it."

Buyer's Guide
Information on more than 3,000 companies, sorted by category. Listings are updated daily.
Learn More
Buyer's Guide
AB Show 2023 in Baltimore
AB Show is a solution-focused event for athletics, fitness, recreation and military professionals.
Nov 1-4, 2023
Learn More
AB Show 2023