Sacked by the NFL
By Emily Kaplan
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — At 10 a.m. Sunday, Maria Gonzalez began to prepare. The 33-year-old single mother was taking her four-year-old son to his first NFL game. “Is it time yet?” Christopher asked his mother, again and again. He had slept in his green Mark Sanchez jersey, and all morning he chanted, “Let’s go Jets!”
“He’s been looking forward to this for a while,” said Gonzalez, who bought the tickets two months ago. “But I knew it would be a long day. I wanted to make sure I had enough to keep him busy.”
She made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on wheat bread—no crusts, cut in quarters—and packed it in a clear zip-lock bag. She grabbed an apple juice box, a bag of Goldfish, a pack of playing cards, a dinosaur coloring book and a box of crayons. Gonzalez scurried around her Bronx apartment for other things she might need: a three-ounce bottle of sunscreen, ChapStick, a pack of tissues, a bottle of aspirin, baby wipes. She stuffed it all in a black, nylon cross-body purse, along with her wallet and keys.
At 1:30 p.m., Gonzalez’s friend picked them up. They drove to MetLife Stadium.
At 2:37 p.m., the group was turned away at the gate. Gonzalez’s bag was three inches too big.
By now you’ve probably heard about the NFL’s clear-bag policy, put in place this season. The league says the policy was made to increase security at games. Now, everything must fit into one clear, plastic, or PVC bag, no larger than 12 inches by 6 inches by 12 inches. Fans can also bring a one-gallon clear plastic freezer bag. Small clutch bags, “approximately the size of a hand,” can be brought in along with the plastic bags. “I had heard of the policy,” Gonzalez said. “I just thought my bag was OK.”
Not so, said the MetLife employee at the checkpoint outside the gate. He stood by a gray folding table, which featured a neon orange rectangle painted on top. He took Gonzalez’s purse and measured it against the rectangle.
“Too big,” he said. “I’m sorry ma’am.”
“Are you kidding?" Gonzalez asked, her voice rising.
“Stadium policy,” he said. “You can’t bring it inside.”
“But look!” Gonzalez said, as she opened the bag and began taking objects out and placing them on the gray table. First the baby wipes. Then the peanut butter and jelly. “You can search what’s inside,” Gonzalez said, her voice higher and quicker than before. She looked the man in the eyes. “There’s nothing bad in there. You can see. Scan it. Do whatever.”
“I know ma’am,” said the man, his voice calm. He, too, looked her in the eyes. “But I just can’t let you in with that. I’m going to have to ask you to step aside.”
She held Christopher’s hand and led him back to her friend’s car, two parking lots away. They weaved through hundreds of tailgaters, walking for 18 minutes. When they arrived, Gonzalez stuffed as much as she could in her pockets. Then they walked back to the gate without the bag and entered the stadium.
“I mean, I get it, I understand,” she said. “But doesn’t this all seem excessive?”
* * *
Let’s talk about how this story started—with a 79-year-old woman. In last week’s Monday Morning Quarterback column, Peter King ran a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell from The MMQB writer Robert Klemko’s grandmother. Her name is Barbara Johnson. She’s a retired postal service worker and current small business owner. She’s an Oakland Raiders fan and has been to at least one game every year since their inception in 1960.
She disagrees with the clear-bag policy. She wrote: “Let’s be honest: There’s one hundred ways to bring a gun or a knife into an NFL stadium, and no clear bag is going to stop that. If two boys can sneak into the Super Bowl and make a YouTube video documenting it, I’m pretty sure someone can sneak a weapon in.”
The NFL contacted Klemko about his grandma. It wanted to explain its side. On Saturday morning NFL director of strategic security Ray DiNunzio called Johnson. They spoke for 45 minutes.
DiNunzio, a retired FBI agent with experience in counterterrorism, agreed with Johnson that the new measure, in part, was due to the Boston Marathon bombing: “Typically, new measures come as a response to something.”
He said in 2011 the NFL had specific information that the U.S. was still at risk of terrorism—including intelligence that enemies of the United States were trying to inspire homegrown extremists. That prompted the NFL to add a below-the-knee pat-down to the security process. (In 2012 the league shifted to a handheld metal detector that took less time and was less invasive).
At the Boston Marathon, DiNunzio said, the area around the finish line was secured the morning of the race. Then people flooded in without any kind of security bag check. “And we all know what happened,” DiNunzio said. “That was part of the reason for the new bag policy, but not all of the reason.”
He said the vast majority of fans—upwards of 95 percent, by his estimation—were in favor. Of course, he knew there would be opposition. “Some people think we’re already over the line and others think we’re not doing enough,” DiNunzio said. “The director of the FBI always says, ‘Nobody wants security until they need security.’ ”
But Johnson doesn’t think clear bags increase security. “I was stopped like everyone else and they looked through my bag, the same thing they were doing all the time,’’ she said.
“With the bags we’re allowing, no one can bring a pressure cooker or another device that we associate with terrorism,” DiNunzio said. “We feel as though the size of the bag we’re permitting will not permit somebody to bring the kind of explosive that somebody brought to Boston.”
“There is no more safety with my Raiders tote bag and that clear bag,” Johnson said. “Please tell me why it’s safer.”
“You’re right, you can’t prevent terrorism,” DiNunzio said. “But you can harden your target, you can make it less convenient to target our stadiums.”
In the end, they agreed to disagree.
On Sunday, two reporters for The MMQB spent a combined six hours surveying the checkpoint process at MetLife Stadium and the Metrodome. We examined how the policy was carried out and whom it was affecting. We polled 100 adult fans and asked them the same two questions: Are you in favor of the clear-bag policy? Do you believe it increases security? You can see the results of our survey to the right.
There is an interesting divide in our small sample size. The majority was against the policy, while believing it increased security. So why are people against something they believe can make stadiums safer? Most in this group think the measure just goes too far; that the NFL is overreacting and the inconvenience takes away from the game-day experience.
Anthony Bryant, a Jets fan from Edison, N.J., has attended at least two games a year since 1973. He might best sum up that sentiment. "Do I feel safer? Yeah, I guess so," he said. "But I'm sure there's other ways to do it besides creating this kind of hassle."
The fans in favor of the policy largely felt it couldn’t hurt. “I’ve been going to games since I was two, and I’m used to security saying, ‘You can’t, you can’t, you can’t,” said 28-year-old Jets fan Christian Imperato. “What’s one more rule?”
The fans opposed to it had much stronger opinions. “Ridiculous,” said University of Minnesota-Duluth student Lauren Munson, turned away at the Metrodome 45 minutes before kickoff. Her black cross-body bag was about a half inch too big.
Many claimed the policy was sexist and discriminated against women. “I’m OK because I’m a male and all I bring—phone, wallet, keys—I can fit in my pockets,” said Cole Tessler, a 20-year-old Jets fan from Westport, Conn. “But what about women? What about people with kids?”
Ashley Viland of Fargo, N.D., attended the Vikings game with her two sons. She left her four-month-old daughter at home with a relative, unsure if she could pack everything she needed—bottle, food, blanket, pacifiers—in the permitted-size clear bag. “Kind of a pain in the butt,” Viland said.
“It’s annoying more than anything,” said 17-year-old Catherine Bond of Long Beach, N.Y., who took public transportation to the game. Her orange cross-body bag was about two inches too big. All that was inside: Her glasses, lip balm, wallet and keys. “They just sent me away and now I’m stuck figuring out options.”
“An inconvenience,” said Nick McCarthy, 20, attending the game with Bond.
The MMQB stood by one of the entry checkpoints at the Meadowlands between 3:55 p.m. and 4:15 p.m., minutes before the 4:25 start. In that 20-minute span, 864 fans passed through. Six were sent away.
None of the instances caused a backup or delay. Each time, the fan stepped to the side and spoke to a supervisor. But reminders of the clear-bag policy were sprinkled everywhere. When fans entered the parking lots they were given a clear bag and a note card explaining what's permitted. At the gate an hour before kickoff, you could find several of those bags floating in the wind.
Outside each gate at MetLife Stadium there was a “Bag Check” trailer—a coat check, of sorts, for impermissible bags.
And inside the main concourse of the Metrodome, an employee stood outside a Vikings’ apparel booth, holding up a small clear purse. “Twelve dollars on the bag!” he called out to passing fans. “Don’t get turned away! Get the official bag!”
For now, it’s clear: This is the new normal.
(Jenny Vrentas contributed reporting to this story.)