World sport: Football hooliganism: now it's an all-American problem

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Be careful which door you try when wandering the bowels of Philadelphia's famous Veteran's Stadium when the Eagles are playing at home. You may find yourself facing a stern looking man with black robes and a gavel. He, as David Usborne explains, will be a judge and the room will be a court where hooligans will be tried on the spot.

It used to be a "European problem": the blight of hooliganism at sporting events that marred the reputations of teams, cities and even whole countries and depressed ticket sales. Now, one American metropolis fears it may have caught the disease and is reacting in astonishing no- nonsense fashion.

The city is Philadelphia and what has spurred it into action was a nasty fracas at a Monday night American football game on 10 November. With all the country watching courtesy of coverage by ABC television, a match between the local Eagles team and the visiting San Francisco 49ers ended with ugly fighting between competing fans on the field. One man even fired a flare directly into the stands.

The city and the team owners are joining forces to stop a repeat performance at future games. Starting tomorrow, when the Eagles will play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers, extra police will be drafted in to snuff out any aggressive behaviour. Some will even go undercover in Steelers jackets.

The real innovation, however, will be the establishment of a court of law in the stadium itself. Down on the ground floor next door to where the police already have holding cells for the unruliest of supporters, Judge Seamus Patrick McCaffery will be waiting to dispense some instant justice.

The message is being put out loud and clear: anyone apprehended at the stadium this Sunday and charged with any of a variety of charges ranging from unruly behaviour, drunkenness or drug possession will be hauled directly to face Judge McCaffery.

In short order, guilt or innocence will be pronounced and, perhaps even before the First Quarter is over, heavy fines will be levied. Judge McCaffery himself, a former Marine officer, seems almost to be rubbing his hands with anticipation. "You will be arrested, handcuffed, taken directly downstairs in front of a judge, who will be sitting in full robes, in a courtroom," he promised. "If you're found guilty, you'll receive a significant fine. And if you don't pay, you will be sent to jail".

Anyone holding a coveted season ticket and found guilty by McCaffery, or another judge who has also promised to be on hand, Louis Presenza, can also expect to have that ticket taken away. The idea was inspired by the "zero tolerance" approach to crime that New York City mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, has espoused to great acclaim. The sports-court notion is also an adaption of floating "night-courts" that operate in impromptu settings in some of the trouble spots of Philadelphia after dark, especially on weekends. Judge McCaffery is sits in those courts.

Mayor Giuliani's counterpart in Philadelphia, Ed Rendell, is hopeful that the instant-justice solution will be enough to douse the football hooliganism once and for all.

Rendell was moved especially by a caller he heard on a radio phone-in programme lamenting that it was no longer safe to take the family to the games. "We can't stand by and say to people, `Just don't bring you kids to the game'. That's a horrible statement," the Mayor declared.

While scores of fans have been cited by police officers at games at the Veterans Stadium in the past, most have ignored the court summons and have therefore escaped punishment.

The city says it has not had the resources to chase up everyone cited at the games and force them to appear before a judge. with the judges in situ that problem should be instantly solved.