Milton Ahlerich and NFL Security: Goal-Line Stand

Anything can happen at a football game. But Milton Ahlerich, the NFL's VP of security, has sworn to make it safe for players and fans alike.

He stands 6 feet, 4 inches, and he's 312 pounds of solid muscle. Since age 15, he's been a football superstar, all-regional, all-state, and he broke every tackle and sack record at his high school. He was an even bigger star in college and was selected in the first round of the NFL draft. He's had his picture in the paper so many times that his mom stopped keeping track. Now he's a 21-year-old rookie pulling in seven figures. His new car is worth more than the house he grew up in. All the dislocated shoulders, the screaming coaches, the nights spent lifting in the gym have earned him this one shot at professional success. But he could lose it all in an instant. All it takes is a drunk fan at a local bar who picks a fight with him. "Hey, rookie, you cost me a thousand bucks. You couldn't hit the broad side of a barn." Our football star feels the adrenaline he's paid big bucks to unleash on the field. He clenches his jaw and tightens his fist, and....

"And...stop!" yells a voice from stage right. A moderator steps forward, turning his attention away from the troupe of actors on stage playing out this scenario for the 300 NFL rookies sitting in the audience. "So, how would you guys deal with this situation?"All the Right MovesFlush with their first taste of big-league competition and success, these young athletes are at the National Football League's rookie symposium to learn that security isn't just about the guns, guards and metal detectors they see at the stadium. Each summer, Milton Ahlerich, the league's vice president of security, and his staff try to make the case to the rookies that they need to be able to handle themselves in potentially volatile situations because, even if inebriated barflies don't pose a physical threat to the muscle-bound goliaths, the legal fallout from a barroom brawl could cost them a football career.

Of course, teaching disgruntled-fan management to would-be football stars is just a small part of Ahlerich's responsibilities. He's also charged with coordinating security best practices across the league for regular season games and has direct authority over the security for post-season events like the Super Bowl and the Pro Bowl. In addition, his security team arranges for protection detail for league officials, NFL executives and team owners when they travel to other stadiums. They handle background checks for rookies, new owners and team executive hires. And they provide site security for the league's headquarters. All of which must be accomplished while dealing with the occasional prima donna player or the bombastic coach with an ego big enough to fill the Minneapolis Metrodome.

Ahlerich came to the NFL from the orderly FBI environment, and during the course of a 25-year career, worked his way up from an entry-level special agent eventually into the executive ranks, where he worked in counterintelligence and on violent and white-collar crime. Persuasion and finesse are not skills one is typically taught at the FBI, where rules are rules and the chain of command is rarely questioned, but Ahlerich learned a lot about hands-on diplomacy while serving as the chief of congressional and public affairs for the bureau and eventually heading up the Connecticut field office.

Because of his experience in public affairs, he knew that managing security for an entertainment organization as high profile as the NFL would take equal parts security and PR. "People think we put edicts out to cities and teams saying, 'Do this or you'll be fined or thrown out of the league,'" Ahlerich says. "But that's really not the way it works. We have to persuade. And we have to do a lot of askingnot telling."

Ahlerich also knew that his powers of communication would be tested while marketing security at the NFL because, while its security department acts as a consultant to each team, owners bear ultimate responsibility for managing security at the stadium level. The owners hire their own security personnel and ultimately decide how much security they will implement at their facilities.

The league assigns a security representative to each teama contractor who is usually a former senior law enforcement officer. That individual reports to Ahlerich and works out in the field offering advice to the team and disseminating the security best practices that the league has established. It's a carefully balanced relationship that allows the owners to drive decisions as they see fit, while Ahlerich's security team plays the role of congenial backseat driver, gently but consistently reinforcing the standards that the league has set and addressing oversights when needed.Who's Calling the Plays?The league's security best practices cover everything from bag checks for the players and fans, to alcohol sales, staffing levels, surveillance, ejection procedures, perimeter security and prescreening of a stadium prior to an event.

One best practice approach came directly out of the NFL's experience in the days following September 11th, an event that raised the specter of terrorists attacking places like football stadiums where large groups of people gather. Within two hours of the Twin Towers coming down, Ahlerich was talking to the league's senior officials to decide whether security could be ramped up fast enough for the following weekend's games.

At that point, the league wasn't even sure that the players could travel, given the halt in air traffic. But Ahlerich made sure that, if the decision to play was made, the security challenges of playing that weekend were logistically manageable. (Ultimately, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue decided that the games should be postponed for one week.)

The task of mapping out a strategy for securing football venues in a post-9/11 environment fell to a security task force appointed by Tagliabue and chaired by Ahlerich. It was made up of stadium representatives, team executives and outside security experts. Their job: to examine the various vulnerabilities against which game sites should be hardened. They attacked the issues from a new baseline positionsecurity could no longer be treated as an extra feature. It would have to become a fundamental building block of all NFL operations going forward.

The resulting best practices were not the fluffy, feel-good security goals and standards that are so often set at companies and then quickly discarded as impractical. Ahlerich and his task force gave their plan bite. They encouraged and cajoled teams to implement the standards and tenaciously monitored their performance. "Ahlerich is a consummate diplomat and a doer," says Richard Farley, the NFL security representative assigned to the New England Patriots. "He's walking a fine line when dealing with all 32 ownersit's like dealing with 32 CEOs and trying to please them all. But Ahlerich gets it done."

Ahlerich got the buy-in for the guidelines from Tagliabue, who in turn endorsed and forwarded them to every owner, adding the recommendation that they be implemented. Since first issuing the best practices, the league has conducted a series of audits to check on each stadium's progress. The league hired a third-party auditing firm to go on site for two days at each venue and determine the level of compliance that the stadium had achieved. Once they received that progress report, Ahlerich and his staff met with team and facility executives and sometimes city officials to address the remaining vulnerabilities. Once the final concerns were patched up, he then ordered the auditing company to conduct a second review.

Owners still have the final say, so 100 percent compliance is unlikely. Having the continued support of Tagliabue, though, has been invaluable in winning over the owners. And Ahlerich improves his chances by not playing the heavy. "We've said, 'Hey, we're on your side,' and because of that, we've encountered very minimal resistance. At least none to our faces," says Ahlerich, smiling. "Maybe a little behind our backs."Surveying the FieldLike many security executives with far-flung operations, Ahlerich encounters some regional resistance to security from Midwesterners who perceive terrorism to be a bicoastal issue. But in most cases, Ahlerich notes, owners have gone to extraordinary lengths to comply with the best practices. They've pushed to have streets closed around their stadiums before and during gamesalways a public relations challengeand sometimes, they've actually strung buses around the stadiums to create a makeshift security buffer zone.

Ahlerich stays on top of what's happening at the individual stadiums mainly through his network of security contractors. But nothing beats an onsite visit to gauge the effectiveness of a security program. Ahlerich goes to the games and often sends his staff as wellideally when stadiums are packed to capacity. "I go to one gameand sometimes twoalmost every week," he says. And although that might sound like the greatest security gig around, he's not hanging out in a skybox eating appetizers and watching the game. "We get there very early, and we stay very late," Ahlerich says. "We don't see a lot of football, but we see a lot of gates, command posts, parking lots, perimeters, camera setups and gate screenings. We visit with a lot of security chiefs and get a lot of good feedback that way."

The best practices have translated into many changes in stadium securitythe most obvious at the screening gates where patrons are patted down and, at some sites, are sent through a magnetometer. Ahlerich was braced for complaints from fans, but he has been surprised by their thoughtful reaction to the security. Fans have insisted only on two things: that the stadium follow through on security rhetoric and really do a good job, and that the screening process also apply to the patrons heading to the luxury suites.

That democratization of security screening has even carried over to the players, whose bags are tagged and screened as they enter the stadium. And players on chartered aircraft are now checked before they board, and all accessible luggage goes through a magnetometer. "They've accepted it," says Ahlerich. "They take their shoes and their jewelry off."

At the very top of the hierarchy of threats to stadium security is anything that could cause catastrophic damagea structural collapse or an explosion. Running a close second to that are concerns over biological agents and the security of the HVAC systems. Many of the new security practices are designed to address those two critical concerns.

In addition, since 2001, anonymous bomb threats have become typicalAhlerich notes that having one or two such threats a weekend is not uncommon. The league encourages each stadium to develop a close relationship with law enforcement, which is critical during a bomb threat. The league also recommends that all stadiums be screened prior to a gamean unpleasant task at sites like Ralph Wilson Stadium, home to the Buffalo Bills, where the security staff has to brave arctic temperatures on late-December days for three to four hours in order to check under every seat for suspicious materials.

Rules pertaining to deliveries at the stadiums have also been changed. The best practices forbid deliveries on game day and state that all deliveries should be by appointment only.

The league strongly encourages that stadiums have digitally based surveillance. For an older stadium, that can be a tremendous expense, costing up to a half-million dollars without producing any revenue. But the effectiveness of digital surveillance on security is hard to dismiss. At the New England Patriots' stadium in Foxborough, Mass., the security personnel can pan the entire Gillette Stadium with their digital camera system and zero in on a single seat if necessary. Now, if someone throws a snowball at a game official, the security team can quickly retrieve a digital image of the incident, print out an instant photo of the fan with his arm cocked back, ready to throw. And when security approaches him to escort him out of the stadium, there is no argument. They simply show him the photo and walk him out to the gate.

Fan misconduct is much further down the list of potential threats, but the best practices outline techniques for handling disruptive behavior and preventing small problems from escalating into larger security situations. The guidelines state that alcohol sales should be closed at the end of the third quarter and suggest banning bottled beer to avoid problems with projectiles. They detail ejection procedures and suggest the presence of police officers on site so that unruly patrons can be arrested if their behavior warrants it. Super Security Only once a year does the intense spotlight of public scrutiny really shine on the security practices of the NFL. The Super Bowl is a uniquely American experience, combining the country's near-obsession with entertainment, sports, food and consumerism (particularly for those at home who catch the million-dollar commercials) into a single gluttonous event.

For the postseason events, which include overseeing the wild-card games, playoffs, championship games, the Super Bowl and Pro Bowl, responsibility for security shifts from the hosting stadium to the NFL security department. Those events require Ahlerich's team to work very closely with the hosting team's security group to plumb its knowledge of the facility and vulnerabilities, and with federal agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration, FBI and Secret Service.

In 2002, the governor of Louisiana requested that President Bush designate the Super Bowl (played at the New Orleans Superdome) a national security special event. This directive, which was granted, gave the Secret Service command and control over the event and made federal resourcesincluding assistance from the military, the National Guard, the FBI and the U.S. Postal Serviceavailable.

In 2003, a similar request was made by San Diego for its Super Bowl. The city received a Level 2 designation from the Homeland Security departmentone step down from the previous year. Command and control remained with the San Diego police and the football league, but the federal government again provided significant resources. As of press time, the governor of Texas has requested a security designation for the Super Bowl in Houston, but no determination has yet been announced.

For Ahlerich, working with the federal agencies is a challengebut a comfortable one. "I'm not going to say it's easy, but it's certainly not foreign to us since most of us are former feds ourselves," says Ahlerich. In addition to Ahlerich's FBI credentials, his chief of special event security is a former Secret Service executive, and his chief of investigations is a former FBI agent.

The greater challenge for him has been the media's insistence on spinning minor security precautions into wild and nefarious stories about the league snooping on its fans. The 2001 Super Bowl was dubbed the Snooperbowl after a story broke that the league used facial recognition technology to scan all the fans' faces, searching out known terrorists and criminals. "I can't tell you how many times I've corrected the record on this," says Ahlerich. In point of fact, he says, the Tampa, Fla., police department installed the system on one walkway that led into the stadium from the NFL Experience (a theme park that runs on the Super Bowl site for a few days before the game). "We pulled the plug on it very quickly, before the Super Bowl," says Ahlerich, because the technology itself was a "miserable failure."

"We did agree to the Tampa police department using it, so I don't want to lay this all off on them, but we didn't bring it to the party," he insists.

Other technologies, however, have yielded some good results. A vehicle-screening technology has been used at a number of stadiums, allowing security to screen for suspicious materials without needing to unload boxes or walk dogs through contents. Ahlerich is rather cryptic about what this technology is, preferring to keep it a trade secret, but he notes that it's a cutting-edge technology that has come to them courtesy of the government, and "it's proving to have a lot of merit." Off-the-Field GoalsThere's an interesting dichotomy to Ahlerich's security program. On the one hand, he deals with huge national events; on the other, he's occupied with the security concerns of individual players and their families. Much of what Ahlerich and his team are trying to do for the players could be termed "preventive" security, but he bristles at the notion that any of the players are simply troublemakers. "There is a great perception that these players are involved in all kinds of awful conduct. That's a very bad rap," says Ahlerich. Of the nearly 1,800 players who are on the team rosters at any given time, only 30 to 40 are arrested per year, he estimates, and far fewer are actually convicted. While Ahlerich is certainly not hanging his hat on a small conviction record, he argues that the number is miniscule compared with people's wild assumptions. "We're not proud of it," he says. "But let's be fair. It ain't 300."

The security team makes presentations at the rookie symposium and to each team every season to emphasize the basics: If you're going to go out and drink, have a plan. Don't drink and drive. And when a woman says no, put your hands in your pockets and walk away.

The security group hands out a booklet to players and coaches that is chock-full of advice about handling certain situations such as motor vehicle stops ("Never badmouth a police officer"), preventing identity theft ("Purchase a shredder for your home and shred all documents with financial information"), and handling other potential legal problems ("Obtain names, addresses and telephone numbers of witnesses who can corroborate your version of what occurred"). The booklet also includes an off-season checklist of items that players might need to organize, such as driver's license renewals, auto insurance, traffic violations and child support payments. "It's all about prevention for us because we're not very good after the factthat's not where we see our role," says Ahlerich. "Once law enforcement is involved, we're not involved in their defense. That plays out in the courts."

Ahlerich also wants the players to understand that they are targets for all kinds of financial crimesfrom Ponzi schemes (that take in players and their relatives) to identity theft (a huge problem for the NFL). Ed Reynolds, the player assistance liaison and a former player, is on Ahlerich's staff. He spends most of his time arranging background checks and investigations for the players. He will have a background check run on anyone with whom players are considering doing business, on any company in which they are going to invest, and on anyone whom they may employfrom a personal manager to a baby-sitter.

Reynolds makes no specific recommendations to them; he simply lays out whatever information he uncovers. "We've had players defrauded out of tremendous amounts of money by smooth characters and con artists that took them in," says Ahlerich. "We try to talk to [players] a lot about how to avoid these problems, and we're proud of that. We can't prove how many souls we've saved, but we know it's well received."

Identity theft, in particular, has become a significant problem, and league security has had to help many players and NFL senior executives deal with the aftermath. Often these thefts are done online where there's nobody to challenge the criminal's identity. Ahlerich notes that hardly a day goes by in which a team member or employee is not victimized.

Players who suddenly come into a lot of money can be victimized in other ways as well. "Everyone they've ever knownall the relativescome out of the woodwork," says Ahlerich. "The mother complains that he bought the girlfriend a new Mercedes when she only got a Chevrolet." At the yearly rookie symposium, actors stage scenarios that the players might encounter, and they discuss how best to deal with them. They portray a bar scene where a player's girlfriend is called names, potential domestic violence situations where a player is trying to break his relationship off with a woman who doesn't want to leave, and a scenario where a player is slapped by a woman. Then they have players step into the skits to test their reactions. "It really holds their attention," says Ahlerich. "It gets some laughs, but it also teaches."

Of course, nothing is better than when the rookies can hear from fellow players and seasoned vets about situations they have encountered and the choices they have made. Every year the security group puts out a video focusing on a particular problem and makes it a point to include real players talking about their experiences in this area, the mistakes they made, what it cost them and what they put their families through. This year's topic was DUI.

And, lest you think the NFL security team can relax in the off-season, Ahlerich shoots down the myth that there even is an off-season. His responsibilities are year-round, he says. "We have to do all the due diligence, the background checks for the draft, a league in Europe with six teams," his voice trails off, seemingly distracted by some long list of to-dos somewhere. "No, we actually prefer the regular season where teams are just playing football games on Sundays."

Insider: How a good CSO confronts inevitable bad news
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies