Shotgun Spratling | USCfootball.com

Now for something serious

A word here about the outside threats to the way we enjoy and participate in our big spectator sports. This is not the time to let anything take away from what matters so much for us as a society.

It's something we've been a part of for decades. Actually, in some way, it's a part of us -- our own personal story of falling in love with sports as a kid. Back in the day when we could walk the Southern Railroad Bridge across the Ohio River in our Knothole Baseball (that's what they called it in Cincinnati) uniform to see the Reds at Crosley Field.

Or hitch-hiking -- yeah, you could do it back then -- all over Northern Kentucky and then the rest of the state when we were too young to drive -- to see as many different games in as many different sports as we could. If they were playing, we were there. But not just for the games, for the folks who were watching the games.

Louisville was a different place from Lexington, where they alternated the Sweet 16 high school basketball tournament. And both not at all like the Appalachian hills of Eastern Kentucky where you might end up for a football playoff game. But the one thing that was the same, even when we got someone to take us to Columbus for the Buckeyes or South Bend for Notre Dame or Bowling Green for a Western Kentucky game or Nashville for Vanderbilt or Knoxville for Tennessee or Iowa for a UK NCAA game, the joy of being around all those different fan groups, getting to know them a bit, getting to be a part of those places, might have been more of a draw than the games themselves.

Although the chance to get in on a $3 standing room only ticket to see Pistol Pete Maravich drop 69 points on a No. 1 Kentucky team at Memorial Coliseum would be hard to top. 

By the late 1980s' and 1990's, we were able to see all of this in a different way, at places like Wimbledon outside London, the British Open in Scotland or the French Open in Paris. The beauty of getting to go there and cover those events would be as much in the trip by fan-filled public transportation to the venues, especially in London and Paris, and the long walk from the end of the Metro or Underground past all the buzzing, excited fans queuing up early for the day's available standing room only tickets.

Then inside, you'd be smart to catch a match or two on the intimate side courts where the players were within reach, almost, and their families sitting right next to you. You might not be able to speak their language but you could understand the language of sports. Not sure any other activity in life lets us do that in quite that way.

So there's a special treasure in being there live and up close. And yeah, in the 1990s', we did realize that change was coming. The IRA bombers were getting more sophisticated and you'd hear hourly warnings at Wimbledon to watch out for any "unattended packages" left in the stands.

Which immediately, thanks to the late Vitas Gerulaitis, became something of a humorous meme when the carefree and late-night-enjoying, easy-training Vitas was watching a match all by himself in the stands and fell into a deep sleep that seemed to last forever. Long enough for the TV cameras to zero in on him and earn Vitas the Wimbledon moniker as an "unattended package."

But there weren't all that many IRA folks and they were more into making political statements. You could go and play St. Andrews and have a much better chance of running into golfers you knew from the University of Cincinnati, as we did, than a terrorist.

But the thought lingered as we noticed how the Paris suburbs, as you proceeded from center city to Charles de Gaulle Airport had become something of no-go zones with France becoming more the target of attacks from Islamic terrorists. Thank goodness they don't pay attention to sports, we'd say to ourselves.

That was especially true when we became a chauffeur for our sportswriter wife covering the Tour de France, when Lance Amrstrong ruled and thousands of fans would show up in a small town or on top of a mountain where hundreds of packed cyclists would soon ride by.

No chance for tight security there. And no need for it. No one who wanted to do harm seemed to be paying attention. Walking those streets with German, Brit, Italian, French, Ukrainian and American fans, was as much fun as you could have following sports. And the way you always hoped it could be. But were pretty sure it wouldn't be.

Late in 2015, as part of a major assault on Paris, there were three suicide bombers intercepted at the gates of the Stade de France at a major soccer match combined with the horrific assault on the Bataclan theater where the Southern California group, Eagles of Death Metal, was performing, combining the two targets -- sports and entertainment.

And now Manchester, where it wasn't sports but a major sporting venue with the same sort of crowd -- only younger and mostly female. And already we're hearing the calls.

On one of the cable news channels Tuesday, an ex-FBI guy now terrorism consultant -- definitely a growing profession -- was calling out the Manchester attendees for not calling the cops when they saw a person with a backpack walking around outside. In one of those "See something, say something" moments, the terrorism guy said that when anyone sees anyone with a backpack heading to a venue where backpacks aren't allowed, call the cops. Stop that guy.

And all we can think of is how for the last 35 years or so, we've been that guy. If not a backpack, a roll bag or really big briefcase to hold our laptop, power cord, media guides, game notes, binoculars, radio, cellphone, notepads, extra batteries and camera. It takes a backpack. And while the rest of the crowd heading into the game can't get their backpacks in, we have to.

Yeah, we're that guy walking through the crowd, maybe one of a hundred or so, at a USC football game. And enjoying the heck out of getting to go through the crowd -- as we always have. We don't want that to change -- for selfish reasons and for the crowd as well. We're fortunate to be in a country where the security services aren't overrun with too many suspects to follow.

And we're also well aware of how the expensive installation of metal detectors at stadium gates is hardly the answer. The number of people crowding around those gates right before they open provides just as inviting a target environment as if the bombers had gotten into the stadium. In checking out the aerial video of the Rose Bowl for last weekend's U2 concert, you could not pack more people into a public space than into the security line queues there.

Well, just move the perimeter out, the security guys say. And maybe the next level of technology will allow us to check all the cars coming into the parking lots. But for now, the one approach that works best is the one that preserves what matters so much about what we love in getting together for these great events.

Take Manchester. Of the 21,000 in attendance, 20,999 could not have been more comfortable with one another or having a better time. It took just one deranged, hate-filled cretin -- and his network -- to change all of that.

And of course, as has been the case in almost every terrorist event -- the bombings, the deadly truck killings, the stabbings, the shootings -- the terrorist was on someone's list of security threats. "Known wolves," we call them now.

Young males preaching against Western culture with recent trips back and forth to failed states like Libya where terrorists rule in part should be at the top of the list for immediate disruption. Is that profiling? You bet. Better them than the wasted effort stopping a guy carrying a backpack to the press box.

Which is where this has to start. But this cannot wait until after they've killed, as is happening today with the roundup of the Manchester bomber's network.

Before we disrupt so much of what matters to us, disrupt the people who hate us. And want to kill us. And stop us from living the life we love. And are planning to do so.  

"We know who they are," former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Robert Gates, also the former president of Texas A&M, just said on TV. "Now we have to dispose of them."

Dispose of them -- not our way of life.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.


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