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David Mittleman
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Take Me Out To The Ballgame (But Not To The Hospital)

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I have been fearful of this type of tragedy since I was a young person and I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often. Last night, a man attending a Texas Rangers baseball game with his young son fell to his death while trying to catch a foul ball tossed into the stands by Josh Hamilton. The man was reaching over the front-row railing before falling about 20 feet and landing on his head.

While injuries like this are relatively rare at sporting events, they are not unheard of. Earlier this year, a fan died after apparently attempting to slide down a staircase handrail at Coors Field and striking his head. Almost exactly one year ago, a fan suffered a fractured skull after reaching for a foul ball — also at a Texas Rangers game. And who can forget the Chicago Bears fan who jumped out of his seat and into the tunnel 20 feet below to catch an extra point that cleared the net in a game against the Green Bay Packers in 1995?

I recognize that sports teams, arenas, stadiums, and other facilities at all levels want to enhance the fan experience by bringing the action as close as possible for the spectators. In many cases, fans are warned to be alert for objects leaving the field of play, and the chance of catching a one-of-a-kind souvenir is part of the allure of some sports. But can more steps be taken to keep fans safe?

In 2002, young Brittanie Cecil was killed at a Columbus Blue Jackets game when a puck was deflected into the stands, striking her in the head. In response, the NHL added netting behind the goals at either end of the ice in an effort to provide more protection to spectators who would not have time to react to a puck leaving the rink. Similarly, baseball stadiums feature nets behind home plate (though many people have still been injured by sharply hit balls and errant bats along the first and third base lines). Should arenas and stadiums increase the height of their railings to prevent injuries like the one last night? Although the fan was reaching over the railing for the ball, isn’t that a foreseeable possibility that facilities should plan for? If the venue furnishes alcohol, should it have to take additional measures to protect fans?

People who attend sporting events generally expect a safe and enjoyable experience. The desire to be “part of the game” needs to be balanced with the fact that fans aren’t always in the best position to protect themselves.