Multiple Drone Incidents at NFL Stadiums

On November 26, 2017, 55 year old Tracy Mapes of Sacramento, CA piloted a drone over two NFL stadiums.  The drone dropped written leaflets, hurling unusual allegations of corruption at the media and government.


The first incident occurred during the second quarter of the 49ers/Seahawks game.  Windy conditions and a steady rain appeared to hamper the effort’s overall success.  Levi’s Stadium security was unsuccessful in their effort to apprehend the drone operator or secure the drone itself.  Mapes then drove 33 miles and repeated the same stunt at the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum during a Raiders/Broncos game.  As he attempted to leave the area, he was spotted, detained and arrested.

Federal and local laws prohibit drone flights near NFL games due to safety concerns.  As one might expect, NFL security had no comment but was conducting an internal investigation.  This doesn’t come as much of a surprise.  The prospect of drones hovering over stadiums is a touchy subject.  It’s also part of a larger paradox because it raises some very ugly possibilities.  What if the drone crashed into the stands and someone was sliced by a propeller blade?  What if the drone was flying a banner that read — “DEATH TO ALL MUSLIMS!  #MAGA.  What if the drone was spewing sarin gas?  What if the drone was dropping cash bills, with the hopes of inciting an isolated crowd surge?  How might fans react to any of these scenarios?

It’s all part of an “undiscussable” catch-22.  Because if you acknowledge a problem, you own it.  And if something bad happens, you’re at fault… because you didn’t do enough to prevent it.  These professional sport mini-paradoxes are more commonplace than you might think.  Usually, the reason for silence or avoidance of the subject is a matter of hypothetical litigation.

Not until recently was it mandatory to walk through a magnetometer to gain entry into an arena, ballpark or stadium.  The threat of concealed weapons has always existed.  But the general mindset surrounding the nature of the threat began to evolve, and eventually change, in a post 9/11 environment.

Major League Baseball has finally mandated that netting be extended down the first and third base lines.  Yet fans in MLB stadiums have been getting hit by foul balls and broken bats since the inception of baseball.  However, a recent, life-threatening head injury to a young girl at Yankee Stadium seemed to escalate concerns.

Vehicle crashes at NASCAR races can be spectacularly unpredictable.  Although rare, sometimes debris from a car can flip over the protective fencing and into the stands.  You’ll often see fine print disclaimers on the back of ticket stubs.  These days, most disclaimers are trending less specific.  It’s a predictable outcome in a hyper-litigious, deep pocket-seeking society.

“The holder of this ticket expressly assumes all risk incident to the event, whether occurring prior to, during or subsequent to the actual event, and agrees that all participants, sanctioning bodies, and all employees, agents, officers, directors and affiliates and subsidiaries, are hereby released from any and all claims arising from the event, including claims of negligence.”

In a court of law, blanket statements like this can prove more effective than touching on matters of specific liability.

So what about drones?  Well, here’s the scoop.

With evolving situations like those presented by drones, it’s often necessary to wait until a definitive tragedy unfolds.  Then, in the aftermath, the incident gets played out in the court of public opinion, and later resolved by a branch of government.  But it’s incredibly challenging to make new laws and institute ordinances based on hypothetical scenarios, particularly those in the realm of public safety which may have transformational, long-lasting consequences.

Takeaway:  I don’t personally know Mr. Mapes.  But I do know that his issues with the media and government go back well over a decade.  Mapes obviously had an agenda of some sort.  And he was attempting to maximize that agenda by taking advantage of the media and the NFL.  He specifically chose the only week of the 2017 NFL season (out of 17 weeks) when the 49ers and Raiders both hosted simultaneous home games.  He patiently waited 3 months for his window to open.  It was the only opportunity he had to hit both stadiums.  Obviously he was seeking the “biggest bang for his buck.”  And guess what?  That patience likely helped his story trend on social media and become national news.

Mapes took advantage of a single, isolated, synchronized event during the NFL season — 2 concurrent games in the state of California, in close proximity during week 13.  He successfully exploited a “chink in the NFL’s armor.”  One that’s not overly apparent, I might add.  One that few would consider.

The actions of Mapes parallel my concerns about the prospect of a “dominipede” a/k/a domino stampede.  If an individual had the requisite malicious intent necessary to orchestrate a cellular-induced panic, it’s likely going to wind up being more than a single stadium.  Why?  Because the ammunition is readily available inside every NFL stadium.

50,000 – 100,000 cell phones?  Check.
Wireless hyper-connectivity and hundreds of wifi hubs?  Check.
6-10 games simultaneously overlapping during the 1-4pm time frame?  Check.
Unfamiliarity with the concept?  Definitely check.

Sure, the magnetometers do a nice job of keeping weapons out.  But cell phones get a total pass.  Why?  Because it’s the current societal norm.  The prospect of using wireless technology to foment panic isn’t available for public consumption.  Well, that is until something horrific happens… or at the very least, is ATTEMPTED.

Seriously, can anybody offer me a coherent explanation for the rationale behind refusing to inform fans…

that legitimate stadium evacuation orders are NOT delivered via their personal cell phones.

Seems to me like some relevant, straightforward, public safety info.  Trust me, there are reasons that generic information like this is deliberately concealed.  I’m not the only person in the United States, or for that matter, on the planet earth, who has thought of this stuff.  It’s a classic case of plausible deniability.

Unfortunately, we as a society, must sit around and actually wait for a stadium to be saturated with phony evac orders.  That’s how it works.  Then, the government and private industry will come to the rescue — Oh, by the way, this isn’t how official evacuations are conducted.  So sorry we couldn’t have been more forthcoming.  This is how dangerous, unique scenarios play themselves out in the real world.

And just a final thought.  If and when something like this were to happen, the information won’t be a pleasantly crafted text alert.  “Forgive the intrusion.  At your earliest convenience, please consider gravitating toward the nearest concourse.  Thank you for your cooperation.”  I hate to sound pessimistic, but it will assuredly be something far worse, carefully calculated and vastly more sophisticated.