ATLANTA -- It has been a long time since I sat in the stands for an NFL game. When I attend one, I am working and my workspace is in the press box, an area that pretty much removes its occupants from the "true" fan experience.
For the most part, I don't have to worry about cringing as some foul-mouthed fool tries to impress everyone around him -- including women and children -- with how many curse words he can yell at the top of his lungs.
I don't have to worry about having a beer spilled on me. I don't have to worry about being subjected to someone's belligerence, which is almost always fueled by alcohol consumption. I don't have to worry about being dangerously close to flying fists or staggering/falling drunks. And because I don't pay for my seat, I don't have to worry about feeling cheated because the day's worth of entertainment for which I paid a handsome price became a day's worth of aggravation … even if my team won.
Unfortunately, there are a significant number of fans who do have these worries -- who have, in fact, had such nightmarish experiences at NFL stadiums.
They are the ones that Commissioner Roger Goodell, league owners, and club executives had in mind when they addressed fan conduct at this week's NFL Spring Meeting. No hard numbers were made public on incidents of rowdiness throughout the league, but enough complaints have reached Goodell and teams to prompt a lengthy discussion and plans for follow-up dialogue and solutions that will be put in place for the 2008 season and beyond.
"We look at the issue of our in-stadium experience as something that's critically important," Goodell said. "We think that the experience can be improved. We are going to be working with our clubs to improve that … making sure that (fans) feel safe, that they're comfortable, and that they can enjoy the game without being interfered with. And I think people have a right to do that. We want them to go home, safely, and when they arrive home, feel good about what they just did that day."
The matter is such a priority that an NFL Fan Conduct Policy will be announced before the start of the '08 campaign. Details are still in the works, but the general tone is that teams will have a much lower tolerance for bad fan behavior.
"We want everyone to be able to come to our stadiums and behave properly, enjoy the experience, and don't ruin it for others," Goodell said. "There's no question that we probably have a more difficult time in the evening games. In some cases, that's because the normal season ticket holder isn't at the game and they give (their ticket) to somebody else. (But) that's not a license to be unruly. In our opinion, you have the responsibility to whoever you give those tickets to. And you're responsible for their behavior.
"And there are some new factors coming into it. The secondary ticket market is a new factor and we have to figure out how to handle that. There's not a one-size-fits-all solution."
Of course, the topic raises an obvious question: With alcohol being a factor in so many fan-related problems, is the league willing to take the bold step of halting the sale of beer at its stadiums? Does the NFL even dare consider biting the hand of one of its most lucrative sources of sponsorship money?
Alcohol might be a factor, but it is not the source. The source is poor judgment and callousness on the part of a small number of people who manage to make life miserable for those around them. The NFL's position is to put the onus on itself and its teams to do a better job of policing trouble-makers.
"It's very possible and likely that people can come to a game and enjoy alcoholic beverages or beer and do it very responsibly," Goodell said. "What we don't want is there to become abusive behavior. That includes foul language. That includes disrupting other people who are there to enjoy the game.
"We're just saying, 'Come and enjoy yourself, but don't ruin it for others. …Have fun, scream as much as you want, but do it in a way that's appropriate.'"
Goodell is ultra-sensitive to the concerns of fans. He knows the fastest way to lose them is to lose their trust in the quality and integrity of the product. That is why he took unprecedented action in his punishment of Michael Vick, Pacman Jones, Bill Belichick, and the New England Patriots. That is why he is further enhancing the league's personal conduct policy by making teams subject to fines, which escalate in accordance with each incident, for player or coach misdeeds.
Goodell is taking a similar approach with the NFL Fan Conduct Policy. He realizes that ignoring even one customer dissatisfied with his or her fan experience is a huge mistake because it can multiply into a much larger problem. And by fan experience, we're talking about everything from driving to the stadium, to parking, to walking through the gate, to sitting in the stands, to ordering food and beverages, to using the restrooms, to exiting the stadium, to leaving the parking lot.
Goodell cares so deeply about fans that he took it upon himself to see a game from their perspective for the sole purpose of developing a clearer understanding of what needs to be done to improve the fan experience. Last January, he traded his suit and tie for much more casual attire and attended a playoff game with his 13-year-old niece, just the way any of the thousands of other fans did that day.
"I just went through the gates, went through the whole experience, and it was a terrific experience," Goodell said. "But that varies from stadium to stadium and probably game to game and probably time to time. I sat in two locations -- all the way at the top, at about the 40-yard line, and then I sat in the end zone. They were two different experiences. I was actually quite surprised at how different they were."
Several fans recognized Goodell, but for the most part he was able to watch the game in mostly unassuming fashion. He didn't reveal the stadium, but it is among those that he views as providing a good model for other teams to follow. Goodell says there are other clubs that get it right, but he did not make them public.
Internally, however, the league is sharing best practices for dealing with rowdy fans and creating a safe, comfortable environment for fans with all of its teams.
"I think we can all improve," Goodell said. "I think all of us are going to learn from one another what's working in some stadiums. I think it's something that we believe should be addressed by the NFL, so we're going to take the positive step to do it and do it in a responsible fashion.
"I think it'll be good for all of us to make sure that we're doing everything we can to make sure those experiences are good ones."
Have a question for Vic on anything NFL related? Don't just sit there -- send it to AskVic@nfl.com, and the best questions will be answered throughout the season right here on NFL.com!