Who’s protecting who at sporting events?

Published 3:55 pm Friday, September 15, 2023

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I’ve always wondered why college football coaches need to have a couple of stoic, muscle-bound, and armed-to-the-teeth law enforcement officers standing guard on the sidelines during games.

Do those coaches really and truly think that some drunken yazoo, still upset over last week’s narrow loss to Southwestern Peach State Community College of Aerospace Science and Technology, is going to rush the field and berate the coach? I mean, come on man, isn’t the coach surrounded by 80 or more strong young men capable of bench pressing the Titanic (if it was still afloat)? Don’t you think that one or more of those players would be able to protect their coach should such a circumstance arise?

I haven’t witnessed a college game on television where the head coach wasn’t accompanied on and off the field by at least two police officers or state troopers. Just this past Saturday at Garrison Stadium on the campus of Chowan University, the head coach of visiting Delta State University had a pair of Mississippi State Troopers on the sideline.

Meanwhile, Chowan’s sideline was guarded by Murfreesboro Police Chief David Griffith.

As it turned out, law enforcement was needed in Saturday’s game in Murfreesboro when a brawl erupted late in the fourth quarter on the Chowan sideline. Football is indeed an emotional game, one full of peaks and valleys, but what occurred Saturday night is uncalled for and totally unacceptable.

So…back to my question about why college football coaches have bodyguards. Well, for the answer, I turned to the World Wide Web and found an article from 2006 by Pat Forde, writing at that time for espn.com.

“Actually, it’s only theoretically about safety. In reality, trooper presence is partly about ease of movement through fired-up (or liquored-up) crowds. And it’s mostly about status — for the coach and for the cops, who seem to excel at working their way into the background of TV shots,” Forde wrote.

Forde interviewed Major Cary Sutton of the Alabama State Police who in 2006 was in his 16th year working the sidelines at the University of Alabama football games.

“It’s a football tradition that, by most estimates, dates back nearly 50 years. And like many football things that sprang from the Deep South, most everyone is convinced it began with Bear Bryant,” Forde said in his article.

Sutton, Forde said, is something of a historian on the subject. He believes the Bear first got his trooper escort in 1958 (Bryant’s first year as head coach at Alabama) or ’59.

Naturally, Sutton said, Ralph “Shug” Jordan, then the coach at rival Auburn, got one shortly thereafter.

“And it gradually spread around the South from there, as coaches and schools tried to put on Bear airs,” Forde wrote. “At Florida State, trooper Billy Smith began escorting the head football coach in 1964 and simply never stopped. He retired as a cop more than 20 years ago, but he still puts on his uniform and accompanies Bobby Bowden on the sidelines for every game.”

Of course by now, Bowden is long gone, but today’s Florida State head coach Mike Norvell is shadowed on game days by Florida troopers.

In Alabama alone, Sutton said, every football-playing college — from the University of Alabama to Alabama A&M — has a contract with the state police to provide support.

But the job consists of more than hanging out on the field and chop-blocking intruders, Forde wrote in his story. A big part of most troopers’ duties is providing advance intelligence on road trips and arranging travel routes to and from football stadiums and airports.

Case-in-point: When Alabama plays at rival Tennessee, Sutton and his detail will leave their post in Montgomery and drive their squad car to Knoxville on Thursday. They’ll meet that day with the Tennessee university police to discuss traffic logistics for pregame practice and on game day, then take those officers out for dinner.

On Friday afternoon, they’ll meet the Crimson Tide at the airport and escort the team to the stadium for its walk-through practice, then to the team hotel. Saturday they will escort the Tide to Neyland Stadium for the game, and from there to the airport; then they’ll stay Saturday night in Knoxville.

As for me watching the games on TV, I take notice that after the game has ended, both head coaches walk towards midfield to shake hands. Both have their police bodyguards in tow. I guess that’s a good thing in case the game ends in a big upset by the home team and the happy fans rush the field to celebrate.

Protection is also needed when the coaches exit the field, especially as they come close to the stands where fans are gathered. Some of those fans are happy over a win, while others are angry due to a loss. You never know what emotional state those fans are experiencing.

Since the majority of football-playing colleges and universities are state owned, having state-level officers at those public facilities makes a lot of sense. I would assume that the athletic departments at those schools reimburse the state for that security….much in the same that our local high schools here in the Roanoke-Chowan area hire off-duty town police and sheriff deputies to safeguard the public and the players during athletic events.

Crowds gathered at sporting events can sometimes get out of hand, so it a wise decision to have law enforcement officers at the games. I can recall a few fights breaking out at games and the police/deputies rushed in to get things under control. As long as everything goes fairly smoothly, some of those officers just do crowd control at the end of the game so that everyone can get off the football field or basketball court without incident as well as handling traffic control in the parking lots.

From a personal standpoint, since I attend a lot of sporting events to snap photos and keep stats, I appreciate having that layer of security.

Cal Bryant is the Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at cal.bryant@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7207.


About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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