COLUMN: Presidential visit creates headaches for fans, media
By Graham Dunn
ATLANTA - The road to the College Football Playoff national championship game was relatively difficult for both Alabama and Georgia.
But it may have been a breeze compared to what fans (and several media members including yours truly) had to endure to enter Mercedes-Benz Stadium prior to Monday’s game.
Yes, Alabama fans were all smiles following their team’s come-from-behind 26-23 overtime win over the Bulldogs. But a few hours prior to kickoff, here is a guess that many of them were not smiling.
We are talking around 4 p.m. EST when many were standing in the rain, shut out of the stadium and wondering if the game’s most important guest would ever arrive.
Everyone knew the president was coming. But like a thief in the night, no one knew at what hour – Biblical pun intended.
Days prior, CFP officials attempted to warn everyone to be at the stadium early, as in 3-4 hours early, to avoid delayed entry.
Fans obliged. But the traveling party of President Donald J. Trump did not.
My group arrived more than three hours before kickoff. We ended up getting all wet.
Fans were asked to wait as Trump’s entourage arrived at least an hour before his caravan did. Make that two hours. Or was it three?
When it’s 37 degrees, who’s counting?
The problems were evident early in our travels. On the drive in to our parking slot, we were redirected at least twice and would have been a third time had we not protested that our parking was in the “forbidden zone.”
(I later learned that we were the last to be allowed to park in the deemed media parking lot. It was closed off until after the president arrived. I know of one AP writer who ended up turning his car around and riding MARTA to the game.)
When finally parked, my colleague, Tim Gayle, and I were redirected on a walk that took us to Athens and back again (on the opposite side of the street). We were greeted by at least half of the 71,000 who were waiting for their opportunity to enter the stadium.
Later, I found that many did not get to see the cause of their delayed entry due to security checks at the gates. Several thousands seats were still empty when the national anthem was performed.
Maybe that was expected (thanks to a complete sweep of the area by security forces) but tell that to the rain-soaked fans who at least attempted to follow orders.
Except for a few drunken goons, the crowds were patient and kept in order. The only ones raising their voices were stadium security personnel who were apparently put in charge to keep “lawbreakers” from trampling non-existent shrubs.
The delay was expected but the time of President Trump’s arrival was a mystery. And that was a problem.
The security force stayed calm for the most part. I was even more impressed with the fans. Even though it was cold and a steady rain pelted them during the wait, they seemed satisfied knowing they would eventually be inside the dry confines of the stadium.
A side note: I don’t believe I have ever been in the building with the president at the same time. For some, it may have been surreal. For me? Meh.
It was nice to see Trump on the field for the national anthem and the coin toss. Unsure of what he did the rest of the time, I was glad he chose not to hang around for the post-game celebration else we all would still be sitting in the stadium waiting for his departure.
I don’t know if this was what it was like when President Richard Nixon visited the Texas-Arkansas game in Fayetteville back in 1969, but my guess is his arrival was deemed more safe then than Trump’s on Monday. And I’m not sure the fanfare was quite the same, either. (Nixon took a large contingent on his trip and no, Bill Clinton was not protesting from the trees outside the stadium – yes, that was the folklore; look it up.)
But it once again provides a great example of what security is like under the circumstances. When it was announced that the president would be in attendance, I shuttered. I figured it would cause plenty of delays and frustrations for fans and media personnel.
No one is to blame other than the fate of human behavior. The world’s most important individual must be protected, even from college football fans, who for the most part gave him a rousing ovation prior to the game.
Maybe it was worth it. Maybe not.
In this case, I think I’ll pass on taking a poll.