The game is just 81 days away, with the hours, minutes and seconds still ticking down merrily on the Super Bowl host committee’s website. Yet right about now, as a horrified planet tries to process the six-attack massacre in Paris that killed at least 128 people and injured more than 300, it’s understandable why we in the Bay Area would want nothing to do with this massive global spectacle and wish it would decamp at once.
Um, that isn’t going to happen, not when CBS is charging $5 million for a 30-second ad, which, of course, is far more important than maintaining a safe haven for the country’s sixth-largest metropolis. So, we’re kind of stuck with Super Bowl 50. And, thus, the operative question becomes this in a progressive, complex region of technological predominance, extreme wealth, a history of social activism, rampant homelessness, two famous bridges, a devastating earthquake that suspended a major sports event and a mystique in San Francisco known to all the world:
How will the Department of Homeland Security, the National Football League and local law enforcement keep everyone safe and secure on the first Sunday in February — and the previous six days and nights, with various public gatherings, media events, league functions and corporate parties stretching from The Embarcadero to San Jose — from terrorists who’ve weaseled their way to Stade de France and the finish line of the Boston Marathon over the last 2½ years?
I don’t mean to be an alarmist. As someone who has covered 24 Super Bowls and 14 Olympiads and was in the downtown park in Atlanta after a fatal bombing at the 1996 Games, I come today as a realist. The creeps are targeting sporting events again, apparently realizing that terrorism at hallowed shrines — the tragic interruption of mankind’s joyful, intense relationship with athletic competition — brings a certain drama to their sick acts. I can comfort you by saying I’ve never felt anxious on a Super Bowl Sunday since 9/11, when the game became an event of heightened interest under the Homeland Security umbrella. There will be enough high-tech surveillance at Levi’s Stadium to make Silicon Valley blush.
But let’s not be naive. We live in 2015, and the best way for extremists to make America ache, as we learned on a September morning 14 years ago and then with two exploding bombs on Boylston Street in Boston, is by assaulting the very symbols that illustrate our way of life. What is mortifying about Paris is that a suicide bomber, wearing an explosives vest, tried to enter the stadium gates with a ticket for a soccer exhibition between France and Germany, planning to kill as many of the 79,000 attending fans as possible. When a security guard discovered the vest after a routine frisking exercise, the would-be mass murderer detonated the vest, one of three explosions outside the stadium that claimed the life of only one bystander there.
One too many.
Could a suicide bomber get close to the gates at Levi’s with a scalped game ticket on Feb. 7? If it seems unlikely, given the intimidating rings of security outside all Super Bowl stadia, again, we’re dealing with people who continue to outsmart the intelligence experts. And we’re dealing with people who don’t have to target a stadium to disrupt and play havoc with a Super Bowl. It’s important to know, to allay concerns, that Jed York and the 49ers are not staging this mega-event. The NFL takes over the entire undertaking, period. But the Santa Clara Police Department will be front and center at the site on game day. And recalling the department’s slow response to the September parking-lot beating of a Minnesota Vikings fan by 49ers-garbed brutes, I hope they’re ready for a function that’s a wee bit bigger than a busy day at Great America.
One of our lingering fears, if you’re old enough to remember, is a real-life version of the 1977 movie “Black Sunday.” It was about a terrorist group plotting to blow up a Goodyear blimp, forcing its crash into the stands at a Super Bowl. The no-fly zone, of course, wouldn’t allow a wayward kite to penetrate the city limits of Santa Clara, much less a blimp or a kamikaze plane. Yes, “Black Sunday” was fiction. But it left indelible images that have followed me into every stadium and arena for thousands of games. Someone had to go and make a movie of the Tom Clancy novel, “Sum of All Fears,” in 2002. That one had a terrorist faction threatening to nuke a football game in Baltimore. Somehow, these dark themes sell. They also might tickle the imagination of a troubled mind.
Every time I get off the Amtrak train, cross the bridge on Tasman Drive and walk toward the media entrance for a 49ers game, I pass a security employee outside who says, “You won’t be able to get inside with that big bag.” My big bag carries laptop computer equipment on which I write my columns in the press box, so I do make it through the gates with a season credential. But I’m absolutely fine with the warning, every time. It shows they’ve been briefed, that the 49ers realize how league executives — and Homeland Security — are watching closely to see if they’re passing dress-rehearsal tests. Yet a 49ers-Falcons game cannot begin to replicate the magnitude and challenges of Super Bowl Sunday.
Heretofore, the biggest problems for SB50 were presumed to be the turf, weather and traffic. The NFL will install its own field, so don’t worry about Jed’s infamous divots, which have been minimized in recent weeks. El Nino or not, it does rain here in early February, sometimes heavily, so people probably will get wet that week. Traffic? You may want to leave for Santa Clara today to make kickoff. Increased security — as seen at every NFL stadium Sunday except O.co Coliseum, where the idiot who ran on the field outgained Latavius Murray on his one romp — will make it even more difficult to reach and enter the stadium, especially on a rainy day. Remember the mess at the New Jersey train station after the East Rutherford-hosted Super Bowl in February 2014, when several fans collapsed and needed treatment while waiting in long lines? I don’t want to think about the scene at the little Amtrak station that serves Levi’s and Great America … or the Santa Clara Valley light-rail trains that will take people to Mountain View, which is nowhere near San Francisco, where many game-goers will be staying.
Therein lies the biggest logistical dilemma, security aside. Will Super Bowl fans, perhaps from far-flung places such as New England and North Carolina, have any idea that a Super Bowl in the San Francisco 49ers’ home stadium happens to be 44 miles from San Francisco? And knowing the congestion nightmare on Highway 101 on normal days, how will all the corporate execs, celebrities and other bigwigs lodging in The City deal with two or three hours in the car, no matter how large and luxurious that car is? At least the competing teams will be staying in the vicinity. Maybe they can play the Super Bowl without fans.
Hey, there’s an idea. Play this one in an empty stadium, Roger Goodell. The Baltimore Orioles staged a home game in an empty ballpark in April following unrest in that city, and while the scene was bizarre, the mood was safer that day and eventually calmer. Does the NFL, as a $12-billion-a-year behemoth, really need the gate receipts? That way, no fans risk harm, and CBS still reaps its $5 million for every 30-second ad.
Eighty-one days remain to ponder all of this. If you thought the narrative for a Bay Area Super Bowl would be football-related — the demise of Peyton Manning, the possible perfection of the Patriots, how Cam Newton can have similar numbers to Colin Kaepernick and be an MVP candidate — you’ve been sacked by a reality dose.
We live on Planet Earth.
And it’s the 21st century.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.