Thursday, August 25, 2011

NFL Fan Code of Conduct - What Is It & Is It Enforceable?

On November 29, 2009, Jason Ensign went to a Chargers/Chiefs game at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. He was wearing his Chiefs jersey, and got jeered for it. In response, he yelled profanities and expressed his displeasure by extending one of his fingers.

Cue the incident.

Security guards forcibly removed him from his seat. He fought back biting and punching (sounds like a typical barbeque at my house). Ensign was then arrested and charged with misdemeanor battery.

The scuffle and Ensign's ensuing arrest gave way to a legal battle that focused on this question: is the NFL's Fan Code of Conduct enforceable?

NFL Implements Fan Code of Conduct

In 2008, the NFL implemented the Fan Code of Conduct to promote a positive fan environment at NFL stadiums. The NFL implemented the fan code of conduct as a reaction to fan complaints that drinking, the use of profanities, etc., made the game day experience unpleasant.

With the NFL also losing fans to the comfort of their home theatres, it needed to try and take a proactive step. That gave rise to the Fan Code of Conduct.

The NFL said that the Fan Code of Conduct was
“designed to set clear expectations and encourage a stadium environment that is enjoyable for all fans. Teams may add additional provisions to the standard code based on local circumstances or preferences. Each team will communicate its code of conduct during the preseason to season-ticket holders and fans through mailings, online, and in-stadium signage, and other messages.”
"The in-stadium experience is critically important to the NFL, our clubs and our fans and it will be a major focus this season," said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. "We are committed to improving the fan experience in every way we can -- from the time fans arrive in the parking lot to when they depart the stadium. We want everyone to be able to come to our stadiums and enjoy the entire day."

The Fan Code of Conduct is intended to address behavior that detracts from the game day experience. Any fan in violation of these provisions will be subject to ejection without refund and loss of ticket privileges for future games.

The Code

Here’s the Fan Code of Conduct:

The National Football League and its teams are committed to creating a safe, comfortable, and enjoyable experience for all fans, both in the stadium and in the parking lot. We want all fans attending our games to enjoy the experience in a responsible fashion. When attending a game, you are required to refrain from the following behaviors:

- Behavior that is unruly, disruptive, or illegal in nature.
- Intoxication or other signs of alcohol impairment that results in irresponsible behavior.
- Foul or abusive language or obscene gestures.
- Interference with the progress of the game (including throwing objects onto the field).
- Failing to follow instructions of stadium personnel.
- Verbal or physical harassment of opposing team fans.

So with the Ensign case, the issue was whether the NFL Fan Code of Conduct was enforceable. Were fans provided with sufficient notice of the Code making its application fair?

Yes - It's Enforceable

A San Diego Judge recently ruled that Ensign was subject to the NFL Fan Code of Conduct. So yes - it's enforceable. 

As a side note, the Judge dismissed the battery charge, saying that Ensign had every right to fight back.

From a legal standpoint, how does all this shake out?

Your Ticket is a License

A ticket to a sporting event constitutes a license to enter and remain at the stadium.

The operator of the event has the ability to place reasonable restrictions on that license, especially when the behavior of one licensee can negatively impact the experience of another licensee.

Ensign was an invitee or a licensee as a paying customer and accordingly he had to comply with the NFL's Fan Code of Conduct while at the stadium.

So the bottom line is that when you buy a ticket you are being granted a license to enter the stadium and you need to abide by the rules of that stadium. The Fan Code of Conduct was prominently displayed (appeared around the stadium, over urinals, etc.), so that became part of the deal.

As a side note, municipalities have laws against yelling obscenities in public place. So that could also kick in.

Finally, how often have we heard someone trying to claim the benefit of their First Amendment right to free speech? Don’t forget, though - freedom of speech relates to the expression of ideas and opinions, not the unrestrained yelling of profanities.

So yes – teams have the right to toss you from a game if your behaviour is not reasonable.

Frankly, since those would be the terms of any reasonable license, that applies whether there is a fan code of conduct in place or not.

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