|Ben Margot / Associated Press|
|Players are very aware when a commotion develops in the stands, leaving them concerned about family members.|
Akbar Gbajabiamila, an analyst on "NFL Fantasy Live," played defensive end for three NFL teams from 2003 to 2007. In his weekly "Inside Out" column, he offers a player's perspective on topical events around the league.
Many of the headlines surrounding the NFL over the last couple of weeks have been about players and off-the-field violence. Unfortunately, we continue the conversation this week about more violence, but this time from fans.
On Sunday, Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher returned to play a game in his hometown of Cleveland. More than 40 friends and family members attended the Redskins' 38-21 victory over the Browns, cheering Fletcher on during his homecoming.
By the end of the game, however, four of Fletcher's relatives were arrested. The linebacker blamed stadium security, as well as fans who "harassed" his family "from the moment they got out of their car."
Talking from experience, I'll tell you that the last thing a player wants to be concerned with while playing in a game is the safety of his family inside the stadium. As players, we are all too aware of the security threat that fans of the opposing team pose to our families.
When I was with the Oakland Raiders, wide receiver Tim Brown had his wife sit in a luxury box at home games. When we went on the road to play the San Diego Chargers, Mrs. Brown was prohibited by her husband from attending for safety reasons.
When the Raiders and Chargers face off in this fierce rivalry, there always seems to be some type of encounter among the two fan bases. From the field, you can see the commotion developing in the stands and are very much aware of what's happening.
There were several fights that broke out in the teams' season opener on Sept. 10 at O.co Coliseum, including one in the second half of the game that was caught by an AP photographer and distributed to news outlets across the country, darkening the black eye that already exists with this rivalry.
When I was with the Raiders back in 2003, a Chargers fan was stabbed by a Raiders fan in the stands of Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. That story played out again in a 2006 game between the two clubs in Oakland, and yet again last season, when a fight broke out in the Qualcomm parking lot after the game. It resulted in a 25-year-old Raiders fan being sent to the hospital with stab wounds to his abdomen, administered by a man wearing a Chargers jersey.
While on the road, it's common for players coming on and off the field to be verbally assaulted by the home team's fans. It was expected, and for the most part, I always felt safe because of the level of protection by security.
With the advent of social media, fans are now finding more creative ways to attack players, even their very own. Mark Sanchez can attest to that. This week, after a disappointing loss to the Tennessee Titans on Monday night, the New York Jets quarterback received death threats from a fan on Twitter.
In speaking with players from around the league, this form of harassment is common. And if fans can be so vicious to players, imagine what could happen if they identified players' family members.
When I came into the league in 2003, I was warned by veteran teammates to tell all of my family and friends to wear neutral colors to road games in order to deflect unnecessary attention that might cause them to be harassed. That advice came in handy during a visit from the Green Bay Packers when I was a rookie in Oakland.
We were playing the Packers at the Coliseum. It was the first time I had played against my brother, Kabeer Gbajabiamila, and it was a night full of raw emotion for Packers fans, as Brett Favre's father had passed away the day before our Monday night showdown.
My brother and I wanted all of our family and friends to sit together, so no one was separated in case things got chaotic. Some of our siblings were adamant about wearing my jersey to the game, but we convinced them that safety was a higher priority. Kabeer and I discussed going half on a suite, but the price was too high for our large group. Instead, all 35 people in our party sat together in the players' family section and wore neutral colors. In the end, it was uneventful in the family section on a night when we were torched by an emotional Favre.
Typically for players who can't afford the pricey luxury suites, they unite with other players and split the cost of the suite for their families on the road. This is to protect them from rambunctious spectators who could otherwise compromise their safety. Prices for these suites vary depending on the venue, but the cost for a basic luxury suite seating 12 with light catering can be $15,000 or more for a game.
After my playing days were over, I remember wanting to experience the game as a fan. It was the first home game of the Raiders' 2008 season against the Denver Broncos. My seat was in the family section -- the same section my family watched me from in my playing days. I couldn't believe how close these seats were to the opposing team's fans.
Fans can be brutal no matter what venue you go to. Raiders fans, despite their "Black Hole" image, are no different than fans from other teams. Most are supportive and well-behaved. But like with any crowd, there are bad apples who give all fans a bad rap -- and leave players concerned about their family's safety.
Follow Akbar Gbajabiamila on Twitter @Akbar_Gbaja.