Experts examine security at college stadiums

HATTIESBURG, Miss. - After more than a decade in counterterrorism, Jim McGee can no longer relax and enjoy watching a sports event.

The fans look like potential victims of terrorism to the former FBI agent turned college instructor. The players are possible targets and the security gaps are easy to detect.

"It's always in the back of my mind, even when I'm watching them on TV," McGee said. "You're kind of looking at things. The thing is if I can sit there or any spectator can sit there, and think, 'Hmmm, that doesn't look right,' that's probably a little bit of a risk there."

It was long McGee's job to worry about security at stadiums and arenas. Now, as part of the University of Southern Mississippi's Center for Spectator Sports Security Management, it's his job to teach others the concerns that face event managers in the post-9/11 era.

While professional leagues and NASCAR appear to be taking security seriously, officials worry enough isn't being done at college sports events.

Those contacted about the issue believe it's only a matter of time before another domestic or international terrorist attack targets a sports event. This time of year is especially worrisome because of all the high-profile games during bowl season.

Bill Flynn, head of Homeland Security's protective security coordination division, said stadiums and arenas are "a concern, something that we want to pay attention to. Why? Because we've seen attacks overseas in resorts, hotels and arenas, so obviously while al-Qaida and the terrorists have attempted to hit hard targets like refineries, soft targets and commercial facilities become more of a target of opportunity."

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said basic procedures followed by professional sports security managers aren't followed by all colleges, leaving vulnerable those who cut corners because of cost or other reasons.

"What we found is that there's a need for athletic administrators, campus police, emergency medical service, for all those people to have training," Thompson said.

The Southern Miss program is beginning to fill that need. The security management program, created in October 2005, is believed to be the only program of its kind in the nation and is offered as part of the sports management master's degree program. The school recently won a $3.5 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security to conduct 95 training seminars around the nation to train and certify security professionals.

The program's director, Lou Marciani, said there are significant research opportunities for students in the program, and qualified security professionals are in demand across the country. The school also can help certify retiring federal agents and military personnel for second-career security jobs in the private sector.

Marciani said the center's research quickly showed that college sports events were among the most vulnerable, with hundreds of venues, varying security emphasis and a high emotional impact. More than 48 million people attend at least one NCAA football game a season, offering an easy target.

Researchers discovered most schools had never conducted an emergency evacuation drill or a threat assessment.

By far the largest variable, however, was training. Law enforcement and private security guards aren't the only employees in need of training for a venue to be safe. Everyone from ticket takers and ushers to the people approving credentials must be vigilant.

"In our lifetime you saw Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts being ushers," Marciani said. "The new usher is the first responder. Big difference, huh? Sixty-two percent of NCAA schools use an outsource company to manage their security. So the question is, 'Who are these people coming in to manage their security?'"

NCAA officials turned down repeated requests to discuss the issue, even in the broadest terms.

Marciani said certification of credentialing processes, stadiums and risk management plans will quickly harden so-called "soft targets." But one factor that will continue to limit security is money for operations, physical protection equipment and vulnerability assessments.

The best security plans include a buffer zone around the stadium or arena, a hard shell at the fence and enough personnel inside the facility to divide the crowd into small groups for easier monitoring.

As fans filtered into M.M. Roberts Stadium for a Southern Miss game this season, Marciani gestured toward the stands and talked about some of the security features. He said each section has its own observer, and security supervisors oversee three sections each.

An emergency operations center is run by the school police and everyone is patched into the communications network for quick response.

The precautions seem standard, but surprisingly are not universal.

"Some stadiums aren't fortunate enough to attract 30,000," Marciani said. "Some only attract 17,000. So where are you going to get the money to offset the black hole called security? People don't see security, so they don't want to spend money on security."

There have been very few terrorist attacks on sports or entertainment events on U.S. soil. The most prominent was Eric Rudolph's attack at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta to protest abortion.

Several security professionals said the Virginia Tech killings and the murders of Mississippi and Memphis athletes this year helped push security into a new light.

Marciani said security leaders understand it takes only one person not checking bags or one credential handed out to someone posing as a media member to create a hole in the net. Or worse, they worry about someone with security clearance working in tandem on a major attack.

"You have to be a hell of a lot more careful about who's delivering the truckload of Coke in the afternoon," said Mike Cleary, executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics.

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