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Jewish World Review August 15, 2002 / 8 Elul, 5762

Matt Towery

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Consumer Reports

A white, Southerner faces discrimination at sports dome | Two subjects I rarely write about are my own personal experiences and race. This time I'm writing about both. And for those outside of the South, stick around, because this story ultimately touches on issues that affect all regions of the United States.

Last Friday I drove from Jacksonville, Fla. -- where my parents spend much of their time -- to Atlanta. The National Football League Atlanta Falcons and the Jacksonville Jaguars, my two favorite teams, were set to do battle in their first NFL preseason game.

My family and I arrived at the Georgia Dome, excited to see what effect the progressive new Falcons' owner, Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank, would have on a team with a spotty record of success during its 36 years of existence.

Because I have long been a devoted fan, in 1997 I signed a "lease" with the Georgia Dome for four club-level seats. This was offered to me as the best way to watch the game and eat a hot dog without leaving my seat. I decided that for a football fanatic like me, these premium services would be worth the small fortune I had to pay for them.

Whether you're in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Kansas City, or any other NFL venue, it's no secret that so-called "luxury seats" and skyboxes are critical for the financial success of big-league franchises in the high-priced world of sports. But over the past five seasons, I had come to accept that the Georgia Dome "club level" was a joke. It offers little service, bland food, and lots of excuses for both.

Of course those of us who pay this king's ransom had come to expect poor service. But the three African-American couples seated in front of me on Friday, whom I had not seen before, obviously weren't ready for treatment that could easily be viewed as racial discrimination. Their attempts to get a Dome attendant to take their orders for so much as a bag of potato chips went totally ignored throughout the first half of the game.

Finally, a "food service" assistant did appear, only to announce that she couldn't help them. So the new fans kept waving their menus searching for another attendant. In essence, they spent the time they should have been watching the game in a futile lookout for the kind of service that would have made their night worth the high price of admission.

Then two more fans, both of whom happened to be African-Americans, apologized for having to pass through our aisle. "We just can't get anyone to wait on us," said one of them.

Finally I reached the boiling point. I found a polite supervisor who followed me to witness first-hand the second-class treatment these supposedly valued fans were getting. I told him in no uncertain terms how disgusted I was at the indifferent treatment afforded these well-paying patrons.

And then I blurted it out: "And I think it's discrimination too!" I couldn't believe I had said it. After all, most of the food-service personnel were also black. And the white season-ticket holder behind us had already explained previous miserable service had prompted him to often give his tickets away. Had I just played the race card?

I quickly searched for an objective view and found it from my 14-year-old son. His best friend is African-American, even though the prep school they attend is overwhelmingly white. "Did I say the wrong thing?" I asked him, knowing that he never hesitates to criticize. "No, Dad, you were right," he said. "We're used to it, but these new fans could pretty easily get the wrong idea."

Then it hit me. This wasn't a racial incident. Instead, the NFL, through its representatives at the Georgia Dome, had elected to treat all of us in the section as second-class citizens. They were equal opportunity discriminators.

Still, it bothered me. I knew that the Falcons' new owner, Mr. Blank, would never stand for this sort of shoddy treatment. And Jaguars' owner Wayne Weaver has an equally impressive reputation. Anyone who pays the price of a ticket is entitled to the total game experience that ticket promises. But it seemed that on this particular night, for a group of close friends out for a special entertainment experience, the NFL dropped the ball.

It wasn't until the game ended that I became convinced my outburst had been on target. One of the African-American gentlemen seated in front of me reached out his hand and said, "Thank you for what you did."

No thanks needed; we're all just loyal fans.

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© 2001, Creators Syndicate