Sunday, June 7, 2009

Jersey Allstars Win Game; Organizers Lose Crowd

Opinion and Commentary
Sunday I went to a high school all star game at Rutgers Stadium in Piscataway, New Jersey with my father, who is 82 years young. I've been a Rutgers season ticket holder since 1990, my Dad much longer than that. We wanted to get a look at the ongoing expansion project at Rutgers, in which the stadium is being enlarged from 42,000 to about 53,000, with most of the construction going on in what was the once open south end zone, which has been filled in to create a classic football bowl shaped stadium. Also, we wanted to see some of RU's heralded recruits. The game pitted New Jersey All-Stars vs Northeastern All-Stars; their players came from Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Maryland, and Virginia. We saw license plates in the Scarlet parking lot by the West Gate from as far away as Maine and North Carolina.

We did get a look at some players we'll being seeing alot of over the next few years at Rutgers; wide receiver Qaron Pratt from Palmyra, NJ., defensive end Mike Larrow from Union, cornerback Logan Ryan from Eastern High, Virginia's DeAntwan Williams, a running back, and several more stars.

Ultimately it was Notre Dame recruit Carlo Calabrese and Florida bound Josh Evans who won the game for the Jersey boys, when with seconds to go, Calabrese intercepted a pass and lateraled to Evans, who ran it in for a touchdown for the Phil Simms coached Jersey Stars who beat Joe Theismann's Northeastern Stars 13-7. You can read more details of the game here.

It should have been an ending that resulted in pandemonium in the stadium, which had a record crowd of 11,000+ for the game. But many of the fans had left for home already. I for one left at halftime.

On a day in which the heat index topped the 90 degree mark, the powers that be decided to seat the entire crowd on the side of the field that had no shade, the east stands of Rutgers Stadium. There was no protection from the blazing sun for the very young, for the elderly, for partially disabled, or for severely disabled patrons, although dozens of handicapped seats were available and unused in the stadium.

But I'll get to that part of the story shortly.

Fans are led and seated in the east side of the stadium. Note that the back rows are taped off because of the ongoing construction in those sections Click on image for expanded view.

The 12th Annual New Jersey- Northeast All-Star Classic was originally a game that pitted high school football all-stars from New Jersey vs. all-stars from New York. Over the years it has been held in New Jersey at Rutgers Stadium on several occasions, as well as at locations in New York state. The participants have been a "who's who" of high school football in the region, many of whom are now NFL players or recent draftees; Ray Rice, Brian Leonard, Knowshon Moreno, Shonn Greene, and David Tyree are just a few of those players.

As said before, Sunday's game was played at Rutgers Stadium, which is still undergoing renovation, and the project is scheduled for completion for the season's first game in September. Fans for The Classic paid their $8 parking fee, and were directed into the SCARLET LOT, which is on the West Side of the Stadium. We arrived about 45 minutes before game time, parked next to one of the numerous construction vehicles that were on the far southern end of the lot, found some shade, and drank a soda or two in a "mini tailgate" party for two.

When game time approached we made are way to the box office at the West Gate; but when we got their it was closed. We walked towards the North Gate, the current Main Entrance to the Stadium. At game time, the temperature was in the upper 80's and there was a mostly cloudless sky.

My Dad is 82, is in general good health, but has slowed down considerably in recent years. It was a long walk on a very warm, becoming borderline hot day. I would stop every few steps so he could keep up with me on the long walk to the stadium entrance. Yes, its not a long walk for a college student- it is a bit of a challenge for an octogenarian.

We paid for our tickets and were directed into the stadium. We were led to the left side of the stadium as we entered- these are the East stands. We had hoped to be able to sit on the West side because in the late afternoon the seats are in the shade; it was shortly before 3:00PM, EDT>

We followed the crowd into the East stands. A security person allowed my Dad to sit in one of the few handicapped seats available; it had a back, rather than the backless aluminum bleachers. We were sitting in full sun, as was every one of the more than 10,000 people in attendance.

You'll note in the picture above there was scaffolding and yellow construction tape along the back walls and rows of the seating area, directly under what is Premium Seating and The President's Suite. Where there was some minimal shelter from the sun's rays, and additional handicapped seating there was rendered unavailable. We looked across the way to the unoccupied West stands, there was abundant shade and dozens of additional seats for the handicapped, and wondered why this seemingly poor decision was made- and who was culpable.

The stands on the west side where no construction is going on, is adjacent to the Scarlet parking lot (where most people are parked), is in the shade, and has several dozen seats for the handicapped or physically disabled is unoccupied and roped off from the public. Click photo for expanded view.

I was concerned for my father's well being, so I made sure he had his sunscreen on, and got some Gatorade and some bottled water to keep both of us properly hydrated. Next to me a young woman pulled in with a baby carriage, desperately trying to get her infant into an angle that offered some shade from a now blazing sun. I had a stadium seat in which I had a rain poncho, which I offered to her to protect her baby from the sun; she thanked me, but decided to retreat to the inside of the stadium, where she couldn't see the game, but her baby would be safer.

In a space several feet away there was a disabled man in a motorized wheelchair, wearing a Navy veteran teeshirt; he appeared to be at least 80 years old, a World War II vet like my father. He too was uncomfortable not being able to sit in the shade. In front of us a family with several children and friends sat down; among them was an elderly couple. Soon a security guard came over and told the younger people that they had to vacate the bleacher seats in the end zone, and move towards the middle, though there were few seats available together at this point. When the guard was asked "why?" he answered that those seats, which were bleachers with no backs, approachable by going down steps, and were in full summer sun, were being reserved for the handicapped.

It made no sense at all. Zero. Nada.

After first refusing to leave eventually the group moved to the East stands; only the two elderly members of their party remained.

Across the way we could see the shady West stands, with literally dozens of available seats for the handicapped, the elderly, and the physically challenged. We wanted to know why the decision was made to crowd the fans into a small area that was bordered by areas under construction, where there was more limited seating when thousands of seats in a more fan friendly were roped off and went unused.

After some pressing, we got our answer.

A bleacher area in the North end zone. Security members told families to vacate these backless bleachers, and that they were being reserved for the handicapped and the disabled. Click photo for expanded view.

Rutgers University's stadium and security were used to hold the game; the university itself was not a sponsor of the event. The NJ-Northeast All-Star Classic ran the game, with the TV coverage being from Channel 9, MyNine from New York. Rutgers President, Richard McCormick, and its athletic director, Tim Pernetti, had nothing directly to do with the game. If there's an analogy, its like a VFW hall being rented out for a wedding reception, birthday party, or bar mitzvah. But this was Rutgers' turf; and if there were problems of any sort, it reflects on the university and its athletic department, rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly.

The older man in the motorized wheelchair to my right asked one of the security guards why East stands where used instead of the more comfortable and accessible West stands. Here's what he was told by the security man- and I heard it myself.

It was MyNine's call.

They wanted the crowd shots in the East stands. To do this they made all paying customers walk around to the other side of the facility from the closest parking lot, herded them into a small section bordered by scaffolding and roped off by yellow tape, denying more comfortable seating to those who physically needed it because they wanted some better crowd shots.

When I heard that explanation I was livid. In same area with me were my father and several members of the Greatest Generation. The previous day, June 6, President Barack Obama praised that generation in his speech from Normandy. The next day, June 7th, a TV production crew used members of that Greatest Generation as stage props- its as simple as that. None of the game's organizers thought about the safety and comfort of ALL of the fans; the very old, the very young, or the disabled. This was a high school all-star football game with TV calling all of the shots, and no one challenging any of the calls they made.

Rutgers University was the least culpable in this problem- their security people could have used better discretion in serving those who need their help- would it have really been an enormous problem to allow those people to sit on the other side? Probably not. But their hands, for the most part, were probably tied.

A MyNine camera man in the end zone of Rutgers Stadium.

We never made it to halftime. It was too uncomfortable for my father to sit that long in an unprotected area. We picked up are stuff, and left with a minute to go in the first half, and the score about to be tied at seven a piece. We walked into the concession areas in the stadium hallways- we saw large families with small children sitting on the floor, many of whom were crying. You preach to children to protect themselves from the sun's rays, and to stay hydrated, and then they're allowed to be exposed to these hazards- because Channel 9 needs better crowd shots.

The two of us walked back to the car, and cranked up the AC. It was 87 degrees outside, and probably much hotter in the stadium with all of the concrete and the aluminum seats. When we got home we watched the rest of the game on TV. When Josh Evans ran the ball into the end zone for the winning TD, most of the crowd had left- there was most certainly less than half of the announced crowd still in the stadium. I wonder how many left because of the slow pace of the game, or how many left because of the physical discomfort felt from being allowed to fry like bacon in that hot sun?

Yes, there were some extenuating circumstances- the construction project did limit the seating for the game. In another year there may not have been a problem.

But better foresight should have been exercised by all of the parties involved for the safety and the comfort of the fans, particularly for the most vulnerable among us.

I wish The Classic every success in the future. But I for one have seen my first and last New Jersey-Northeast All-Star Classic.

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