Sports View: MLB to use metal detectors

tsj column writers - sports viewBy Jordan Kobritz

A day at the ballpark now begins like an airplane flight. Major League Baseball required all 30 teams to install metal detectors at their entrance gates prior to the beginning of the 2015 season.

A few teams installed metal detectors last year and many others had security measures that required fans to undergo bag checks and random wandings. While those measures were voluntarily instituted, metal detectors are now standard operating procedure. The publicly stated rationale for the increased security shouldn’t surprise you. MLB says it’s all about “fan safety.” In reality, it’s all about perception and a C.Y.A. mentality.

In contrast to MLB, the NFL has yet to mandate the use of standing metal detectors.  While all 32 NFL teams use hand-held magnetometers, metal detectors are currently in use by only two teams, the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers. But it’s only a matter of time before they become mandatory, despite the additional expense:  hand-held magnetometers cost $120 while the standing variety can cost as much as $6,000.

According to the experts who have studied security measures, there is no evidence that metal detectors are going to make anyone attending a ballgame safer.  In fact, just the opposite may be true. Walter Enders, an Alabama economist who co-authored a number of metal detector studies, says “people who want to do harm could substitute out and do something else instead.” In other words, if they can’t smuggle a bomb into a stadium, they’ll find an alternative way to create mayhem. And you don’t have to look very far for an example. Enders says that tighter security at stadium entrances could lead hypothetical terrorists to detonate a bomb outside the gates.

The use of the word “hypothetical” is intentional. Law enforcement agencies are not aware of any specific threats to trigger a bomb inside a sports venue. Is such action a possibility?  It’s safe to assume that any place where crowds of people congregate is a potential terrorist target, including, as Enders suggests, outside a ballpark. Which begs the questions: wouldn’t we be better off using the money expended on metal detectors to hire more police or install more security cameras?

Bruce Schneier, a Harvard security expert, calls MLB’s new directive “security theater,” a term he coined for security measures that look good but do nothing to make people safer. But there may be psychological benefits if people actually feel safer.

One thing is certain. Despite having more than a year to design and implement the new security measures, there were more than a few hiccups around the league on Opening Day. Long lines led to delayed entry into ballparks, leaving some fans grousing. However, most were accepting – resigned may be a better characterization.  Others expressed gratification that MLB was keeping them safe, even though any threats to their safety were merely imaginary.

Fans that have concerns about the safety and/or privacy of walk-through metal detectors have the option of submitting to a “more personalized screening,” which includes a pat down. That procedure comes with its own set of concerns. Two TSA agents At the Denver International Airport were recently fired after it was discovered they conspired to target attractive male passengers for pat-down searches.

A male screener would signal his female colleague when he wanted to pat down a particular male passenger. The female TSA employee would then program the metal detector to identify the passenger as a female. The screening machine would detect an irregularity, which triggered a pat-down search by her male conspirator. On several occasions, an investigator observed the TSA screener groping the passenger’s groin and buttocks.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred claimed the new protocol is the “direct result of edicts from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.” Other MLB executives and individual teams were less specific, saying the league and teams “work closely” with DHS.  While it’s true that MLB—and other sports organizations—have engaged in security discussions with DHS since the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the new measures were not imposed by the government. MLB is merely using DHS as a scapegoat to mollify angry fans. And the league has “cover” should an incident actually happen. At least they can say they did “something.”

Welcome to post-9/11 America, where ballparks are indistinguishable from airports.

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner.  He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com  Jordan can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.

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