An Eagles game against the 49ers in 1997 introduced Philadelphia to a level of collective chaos never before seen at Veterans Stadium, and that’s saying something. This was Philadelphia, long known as the home of insane fan behavior, from the snowballs of 1989 to the Santa Claus boos of 1968.
Still, this Monday night in November blew people’s minds. And it wasn’t the approximate 60 fights that erupted in the stands or the mob who shattered the ankle of a season-ticket holder who committed the unforgivable sin of bringing a friend to the game who wore a Giants jacket. Nope, not those. This was a combination of them plus a flare. Somebody fired a flare across the stadium. To repeat: That orange rescue signal appropriated for “Jurassic Park”-style emergencies had been used at a professional football game.
In a way, that glowing projectile served its intended purpose. It caught the attention of Eagles and city leaders, who decided they needed to clean up Veterans Stadium and save Philadelphia from further hits to its reputation. Certainly it had already sustained many of them.
By the time the Eagles played their next home game, two weeks later against the Steelers, they had come up with Eagles Court. Fans who fought, peed in public or snuck in alcohol (or flare guns) would face justice quickly, in a makeshift courtroom in a maintenance room at the Vet. The decision came from then-mayor Ed Rendell and Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, as well as names that meant little then but far more today: Democratic mayoral candidate Jim Kenney and former Pa. Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, who resigned last year amid the porny emails scandal.
Their decision to introduce a court setting to an American sporting event brought Philadelphia plenty of notoriety. No one had done it before, and no one has done it since. But as Kevin Feeley, deputy mayor for communications during the Rendell administration, remembers, the time was just right for Philadelphia.
“The fans — even by Philadelphia standards — were just getting out of hand.”
The decline of the Vet and rise of Eagles Court
We can actually thank our suburb to the north, New York City, for the idea that would lead to Eagles Court. In the 80s, New York introduced night court. A courthouse in a busy area of the city would be open at night to rapidly charge and process individuals arrested for minor offenses.
Philadelphia adopted a similar practice in 1996, with then-councilman Kenney organizing the first of its kind in South Philly. Police would canvass an area and target so-called “nuisance crimes,” and people arrested for those minor infractions like fighting and public intoxication would face immediate fines, rather than a drawn out legal process from a night court led by McCaffery.
It seemed like a decent solution at Veterans Stadium, which on Sunday afternoons attracted as much rowdy behavior as any Friday night on South Street. Enrico Campitelli Jr., who founded the popular blog The 700 Level that pays homage to a cheap seats section of the Vet with its name, went to a handful of Eagles games as a kid in the 90s.
“One of my earliest memories was of a really large Redskins fan attempting to punch an Eagles fan in the stands and his pants falling down mid swing,” he says. “I’ll never forget that awful image.”
The Eagles had tried for several years to clamp down on that type of behavior. In 1986, they stopped selling beer after halftime and requested the NFL to not schedule 4 p.m. games at the Vet against rivals in hopes alcohol consumption would decrease. But cosmetic changes couldn’t reverse the decline of a 30-year-old building. The stadium had long lived past its useful days, and its decaying environment and pre-9/11 lax security practically invited misbehavior.
The restrooms may have been the worst part. The Vet didn’t have nearly enough, especially at the upper levels. Anybody walking into the men’s restroom during a game needed to brace themselves for the sight of men urinating in the sinks. Feeley recalls that it could get even worse. There were spaces on the wall for paper towel dispensers and…“They would rip out the paper towel containers and piss in there,” Feeley says. “It was a mess. Eagles Court was created to address some of that and rein in the crowd.”
The resounding image for Rendell was more of a sound. He listened to sports radio after the infamous 49ers game and considered comments about how families couldn’t even take children to games a breaking point. City leaders like Rendell and Kenney started talking with Eagles’ brass and soon enough McCaffery received a phone call from Kenney: “Jim said to me, ‘Seamus, do you mind meeting Jeff Lurie and Joe Banner? They want to talk to you about putting an actual courtroom in the stadium.’”
At first, McCaffery didn’t believe them. A courtroom in a football stadium? But in a meeting at the Vet, Lurie and Banner were adamant in their request and told McCaffery they would build him a courtroom.
It was official: The justice program first organized by Kenney would be moved into the Vet.
People who misbehaved up to that point had still been getting arrested, even flare-gun guy Robert Sellers. He faced eight criminal counts, including arson, and later accepted probation. But Sellers was an exception, not only for his ad hoc fireworks show but also for the punishment. Most people arrested at games had court dates scheduled weeks or months later. They’d often not show up, and their offenses – urinating in those bathroom sinks, for instance – weren’t big enough to make the courts care.
Fans taken to Eagles Court would see a judge immediately. They were usually caught in the act and essentially forced to make a guilty plea that led to a fine somewhere between $150-$300 and/or community service. More serious crimes would lead to charges and court dates. And people who wished to plead not guilty or request a lawyer would also be assigned a court date.
Leaders thought the specter of swift, guaranteed punishment would cause fans to make better choices — or at least as good of choices that could be made in a shabby stadium.
“I think it helped restore relative order,” says Mike DiBerardinis, then and still Philadelphia’s recreation commissioner. “The Vet had a relative order.”
Eagles Court in action
They added blue carpet and blue curtains to give the new courtroom in the basement of Veterans Stadium the proper feel. At the front of the room sat McCaffery, dressed in a black robe like every judge. A former Marine and police officer, he would often ride around on a motorcycle, fortifying the image of the no-nonsense hardass he tried to be in front of the drunken Eagles fans in his courtroom.
“Judge McCaffery, God bless him,” Feeley says. “He was literally, it seemed, right out central casting for the job.”
That first game of Eagles Court, in late November against the Steelers, he processed 20 fans. They ranged from the blue-collar to the ultimate white-collar (a guy who worked for a politician in Washington). McCaffery remembers the great majority of people brought before the court weren’t from Philadelphia. They were suburbanites coming in from places like Bucks, MontCo or South Jersey.
He has dozens of stories about the odd characters put in front of him. One time, a man caught throwing bottles and cups of ice on the field tried to blame it on his 10-year-old son. Another time, on the last day of the Vet, somebody ripped a toilet seat off a toilet so he could keep it as a souvenir. Police caught him running through the Vet’s concourse holding it over his head.
“As he was leaving (the courtroom) he said, ‘Is there any way I could have the toilet seat?'” McCaffery said. “Needless to say we didn’t give him the toilet seat.”
For the most part the court had a notorious reputation that outdid the proceedings that took place. Eagles Court’s lasting image as being part of the actual stadium isn’t even true. It was actually just the 1997 season that featured a courtroom at the Vet. In 1998, according to media reports from that time, Eagles Court was moved to the 3rd District police station at 11th and Wharton Streets and remained there. McCaffery spoke of the Eagles bringing the court back to the Vet during the 2000 season, but it’s not clear that ever happened. Later that year, Eagles Court was still being held at Wharton, as it was in the 2002 season.
Local media would occasionally publish funny or rude comments from offenders at Eagles Court, but Judge Matthew Carrafiello, who presided over Eagles Court as McCaffery’s sub a couple of times, says most acted graciously. They were being given an opportunity to have an infraction erased from their personal record if they paid a fine or agreed to community service. In front of a judge so quickly, they realized their mistakes.
“When they got to court they were all very contrite,” Carafiello says. “For all that I remember, they were overtaken by the hoopla of football fans and the football could be kind of brutal. They felt this was a way to participate by acting the way they thought football players were acting. Once they were taken out of their environment and realized this wasn’t sanctioned behavior… they quickly saw there was a difference between football and real life.”
The legend continued growing because of constant national media coverage. McCaffery did stories about Eagles Court with “Dateline NBC,” “Good Morning America,” “MSNBC” and “60 Minutes.” He certainly had reason to keep a high profile. By the time Eagles Court ended in 2003, he had gone from municipal court judge to Superior Court and was a few years away from being elected to the state Supreme Court. He says Eagles Court helped him immensely when he ran political office.
As McCaffery and the Court rose to prominence, the idea that Eagles fans were outlaws stayed at the forefront of the sports world.
“It worked to cut down on the violence and the bad attitudes that were going on in the stadium,” McCaffery says. “But then it actually grew into embellished stories about how violent Philadelphia is: ‘Your city is so crazy a court adjourns in the stadium during the game.'”
Which isn’t to say Eagles Court wasn’t necessary. Feeley is certain city leaders made the right decision: “I think it couldn’t be avoided. Something had to be done to take on that behavior because the behavior itself was the stuff of national coverage.”
No more court, but a jail
Eagles Court ended in 2003, the first year at Lincoln Financial Field, but not entirely because of the Linc. Friction existed between McCaffery, the Eagles and the police department, according to various media reports from that time. As early as 1999, McCaffery started complaining about police not making enough arrests at games. In 2002, he was told police stopped making arrests in the fourth quarter of a Dallas Cowboys game and pondered why the court wasn’t being used properly.
The Eagles had apparently sent McCaffery to his boiling point in 2003. He complained during the season that Eagles private security and city police officers would eject fans instead of making arrests and when they did make arrests would leave before testifying against the offenders, allowing them to walk without paying any fine.
“We didn’t feel like we were any longer a part of [the Eagles] future,” McCaffery told the Daily News, “like there was any real interest.”
McCaffery had won his election for the state Superior Court that November. He had planned to pass on Eagles Court to another judge anyway.
Whether you believe McCaffery’s cynicism or that the Linc provided a better environment, arrests dropped off a cliff in 2003, according to data from the Daily News in 2005. The inaugural season of the Linc featured 78 arrests, compared to 309 in 2002 and 202 in 2001. The Super Bowl regular season of 2004 featured 63 arrests.
Christian End, a psychology professor at Xavier University, says sports fans often feel pressure to conform to a culture associated with their team. Fans could have interpreted the end of Eagles Court as a message from the team saying, “we’re not like this anymore.”
A picture of a much more orderly stadium to this day comes across in interviews and anecdotal evidence.
Last year’s season opener, according to police, drew zero arrests. By press time, police had not yet responded to a more comprehensive Right To Know request for arrest records at Eagles games over the last few years. Philly Mag found in 2013 that arrests made at Eagles games since 2011 numbered about four per game, with the frequency higher during losses than victories.
The number of arrests seems to vary greatly. Know how there were zero arrests for the 2014 season opener? Well, the season-ending home game against the Bears from the year before featured 15 of them, plus 68 ejections, according to ESPN.
Lieutenant John Stanford says security at games is largely handled by private Eagles staff, but uniformed and undercover officers assist them. Police make the arrests. Eagles’ security ejects fans. Those who are arrested are taken to a holding cell in the stadium or to paddy wagons waiting on standby. So while the Linc may not have that makeshift courtroom, it does have a jail.
The in-game security, the screening of fans before entry and belief in tamer fans provide enough reasons for most to believe Eagles Court should remain a Vet memory.
“Something had to be done, and it was done,” says Carrafiello, the judge. “And I think we’ve evolved to a better level of fan behavior.”
Of course, if the atmosphere ever changes — flare guns are pretty cheap these days — Carafiello adds, “they could always do it again.”
Updated October 11