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Two incidents raise questions about Bills’ ejection practices

They are two Western New York mothers, one thankful that her son lived.

The other wasn’t so lucky.

Each of their sons, in their 20s, went to a Buffalo Bills game this season. Both got kicked out.

One was so intoxicated that after being arrested and released at the Bills home opener Sept. 16, he tried to walk home from Ralph Wilson Stadium to Cheektowaga. He went the wrong way, and it took his brother an hour to find him wandering – but safe – along Southwestern Boulevard.

The other, David Gerken Jr., never made it to his Rochester-area home, after being ejected from the Bills-Dolphins night game Nov. 15. His body was found in a nearby creek the next morning.

His death remains a mystery, but both incidents raise questions about how security officers and the Bills deal with unruly or drunken fans who are kicked out of their games.

“What do they do when they eject a person from the game?” Gerken’s mother, Marion, asked Monday. “Do they just point to the exit and say, ‘Get out’?

“If somebody’s being ejected from the game, who has the responsibility to go to your party and tell them, ‘Your friend has been ejected’?”

The other mother, who asked that her name not be used, put it another way.

“Why can’t the Bills stadium just be responsible and help these people that are drunk and coming to the game, supporting their team, to get home safely?” she asked.

After her son’s incident in September, she considered calling the Bills to complain about their procedures, but she was talked out of it. She felt guilty after learning of Gerken’s death.

“This could have been my son,” she said.

Law-enforcement officials, security officers and the Bills have three ways of dealing with unruly – often drunken – fans. Some are turned away at the entrance gate, others are arrested on criminal charges, and others are ejected. At the Miami game, for example, security officers and police arrested 17 people, turned five away at the entrance gate and ejected 94.

Those arrested are kept in a holding tank inside the stadium, but many of them later are released. Those ejected and turned away are sent away from the stadium, although support personnel sometimes try to help them by offering a free taxicab ride, notifying other members of their party or, in extreme cases, providing immediate medical help.

The Bills replied, in a statement, that fans may be ejected for violating the Fan Code of Conduct, for offenses that include fighting, being intoxicated, disorderly conduct and other violations.

“The individual is then escorted out of the stadium, unless it is determined by security personnel that the individual poses a danger to himself/herself,” the team’s statement continued. “Security personnel then may attempt to contact family or friends of the individual or seek medical assistance at the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) location at the stadium. Depending upon the circumstances, the Designated Drivers Program of Buffalo or the Safe Way Home program may be utilized. Naturally, the range of options varies depending on the level of cooperation of the individual.”

It’s not yet known whether alcohol played a role in how Gerken, a Dolphins fan from Palmyra, died. Authorities still are investigating how the healthy 26-year-old ended up drowning and possibly also freezing to death in a shallow stream. They still are trying to find witnesses and are awaiting results of blood-alcohol and toxicology tests.

By contrast, there’s no question that alcohol played a role in the 23-year-old Cheektowaga man’s tough day.

After drinking heavily while tailgating, he was turned away at the gate because of his inebriation, his mother said. A little later, he tried sneaking in through another entrance, a bad judgment call the mother blames on his intoxication. That got him arrested and taken to the stadium’s holding tank in handcuffs.

At the end of the game, security let him leave, but he was still so drunk that he tried to walk home to Cheektowaga – and headed out in the opposite direction from home.

“He could have walked in front of a car on Southwestern Boulevard,” said the mother, who wouldn’t give her name because her son is so embarrassed about what happened.

She knows her son bears responsibility for getting drunk.

However, she believes the Bills should never have let him leave the stadium alone in his condition.

By allowing tailgating, she said, “They are promoting the drinking. They let people drink on their property.”

The Bills, like other NFL teams, have been struggling to find the right balance between allowing fans to enjoy themselves and keeping order at the games.

With Bills fans often ranking among the worst behaved in the country, team officials have tried a number of initiatives to clamp down on rowdiness and other drunken behavior while still allowing fans to drink alcohol and tailgate.

They’ve encouraged fans to become designated drivers and they run a campaign called “Make Mom Proud,” urging fans to think about what their mother would say about their behavior. They’ve also started keeping track of banned fans.

This all comes on top of a heavy security presence, both inside and outside the stadium.

The Bills and Liberty/Yellow Cab also team up to offer the Safe Way Home program, which offers free cab rides to stranded fans who need a way home, within the local area. Liberty/Yellow Cab President Bill Yuhnke said the number of fans using that service usually doesn’t exceed 10 per game.

“To my knowledge, they’re the only NFL team that offers this kind of service,” he added.

League officials also say the Bills have been very responsive to recommendations about improving their efforts under the NFL Fan Behavior Initiative.

Halfway through this season, the number of ejections across the league has increased about 7 percent over last year, although at least half the increase involves the ejection of smokers in Oakland, said Jeffrey Miller, NFL vice president and chief security officer.

“I believe clubs and security personnel are ejecting more people than they were before for egregious behavior that may have been tolerated in the past,” Miller said.

How about the Bills?

“The Bills actually have less of a tolerance for some of the egregious behavior than other teams,” Miller said.

Starting this season, ejected fans are blocked from returning or buying tickets until they complete a four-hour $65 online course. Between 250 and 300 fans across the country have successfully completed that course, Miller said.

The question still remains unanswered: What responsibility do authorities have when they arrest or eject a rowdy fan?

One law-enforcement official involved in Bills game-day security framed the issue that lingers over the Gerken incident.

“We’re assuming that the Bills have some sense of responsibility, either morally or legally, and we don’t even know whether he was intoxicated,” this official said. “How does that fall back on the Buffalo Bills?”

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