Behind the Super Bowl Spin: The Depressing, Dangerous Stories of Seatgate

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Loose and missing bolts from the stands at the 2011 Super Bowl

Photos courtesy of Crystal McCarthy

A portion of the NFL’s response to the Super Bowl ticketing controversy could be considered generous. But was some of it disingenuous? And is the NFL as committed to safety as it says?

The NFL has tried its best to limit the damage from “seatgate,” the controversy that emerged after 1,250 Super Bowl fans were told, upon arriving at Cowboys Stadium for the game, that their seats were not ready.

These fans then had to watch the game from a different location in the stadium or on monitors at the North Field Club, an in-stadium venue. For the fans who were stuck in the club, which is essentially an upscale bar, the league has offered a refund at three times the face value of their seats, which were priced at $800 each, plus free, transferable tickets to next year’s game.

And on Tuesday night, in a move to take full responsibility for the foul-up, the NFL added a second option: nontransferable tickets to any future Super Bowl game, plus airfare and hotel accommodations.

NewsFeed will let the ticket holders decide if the NFL’s offers ease the pain of missing the game (if you flew to Dallas to see the Super Bowl in person but were forced to watch it in a bar, let’s be frank: you missed the game. You could have stayed home to do that). But here’s one thing really ticking off the ticket holders: the NFL told the public it offered some of these fans other remedies, while, in fact, its statements don’t seem to hold true.

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On the day of the game, an official NFL statement read, “Approximately 850 fans with tickets in sections 205A, 215A, 230A, and 240A were affected and were relocated to similar or better seats.” However, during the second quarter of the game, Don Divirgi, who held tickets for seats in 215A, texted TIME, “They gave us seats two rows from the top of the stadium. I can’t see that high.”

How exactly is that a better seat than one at a much lower level?

When told about the NFL’s statement, Divirgi, who works for a beer distributorship in New York City, said it was “absolutely” not true. He and six friends, who missed the first quarter because their seats were being reassigned, were sent to the upper deck. Divirgi and an 82-year-old friend, who could not climb the steps to the top of the stadium, instead watched the game on a monitor in a concession area.

Meanwhile, a few minutes before halftime, TIME witnessed an exchange between a woman from Morgantown, W.Va., and a ticket official. The woman, who declined to be named, was seated in 230A but was reassigned to Section 447, which is in the highest reaches of the stadium and seats more than 100,000 people. With her 10-year-old son next to her, the bawling mother begged to receive a better seat, saying she was afraid of heights. She was ultimately denied.

Again, NewsFeed wonders: How exactly was this woman relocated to a “similar or better seat”?

More inaccurate statements followed. On Twitter, NFL senior vice president of public relations Greg Aiello wrote, “400 w/o seats will get ticket refund X 3. Watched game in club w/free food, soft drinks + merchandise.” That implies that a nice spread was available. But according to two ticket holders in the club, no one announced these benefits. “There was no food given to us and no food available for purchase near us,” says Brad Powell, a Steelers season ticket holder. “We were never told any of that. We were actually never told anything. The biggest problem was that we were left in the dark.”

Matthew Rush, who is contemplating a lawsuit against the NFL, also says there wasn’t any free food in sight, nor an announcement. His wife Amanda got hungry and asked a bartender about her food options. The bartender stammered, according to Matthew, and gave her a boxed lunch from behind the counter. Amanda figured that the bartender felt bad for her and gave up her own food.

Merchandise — a T-shirt, hat and game program — was distributed at the end of the game. But Powell and Rush both say this giveaway was not announced. Plus, several fans, like Rush, had already left to beat the traffic. They couldn’t stand being in that room anymore.

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It continues: The NFL said the people in the North Field Club “also had the option of viewing the game from standing room platforms in each corner of the stadium.” Both Powell and Rush say they were unaware such an option existed.

Why all these conflicting statements? When asked for a response to the discrepancies, Aiello said, “I cannot speak to any person’s individual experience and do not take issue with anything that fans have said about their experience. During the game I relayed information about what our staff was trying to accomplish. We recognize mistakes were made.”

Perhaps most disturbingly, some of the fans who eventually got their seats may have been put in harm’s way.

Crystal McCarthy, 32, is a stay-at-home mom and die-hard Cowboys fan from Nacogdoches, Texas, who, along with her husband, sold her Cowboys season tickets to finance a trip to the game. They chose the Super Bowl over Hawaii as a 10th anniversary gift. When she and her husband got to the stadium, they were told that their seats, in Section 427A, were not installed. For four hours, they waited in various lines, while receiving conflicting directions that shuttled them from one end of the stadium to the other. Finally, about 30 minutes before kickoff, she and her husband were told that their seats were, indeed, ready.

At a news conference on Monday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said, “One thing we will never do is compromise safety — safety for our fans, safety for our players, anyone involved in our event.” But McCarthy questions this assertion: “When I tried to push my seat down, it got hung on a brace behind it that had not been fastened down. I noticed a loose bolt and washer dangling from its hole and missing a nut. Someone walked by and I heard the bolt and washer fall from its perch. Within 15 minutes, another fan arrived to his seat, a couple of seats away from our seats, and he kicked another loose bolt. I was like, ‘Is this safe?’ ” McCarthy sent TIME a photo of a missing bolt, which can be seen at the top of this page.

Goodell has said he will conduct a full review of everything that unfolded. He might consider calling McCarthy too. “Had I known the other sections had been closed because they were unsafe, I would have been extremely concerned about the fact bolts were falling off and nuts were missing,” she says.

At the peak of her discontent and genuine worry, McCarthy texted her mother-in-law, “If we die because [the seats] collapse, please sue Jerry Jones for everything he has! I am done with him and the Cowboys and the NFL!”

At halftime McCarthy was offered a refund for her seat, at face value. While she survived the experience, one thing was abundantly clear: for McCarthy, the Super Bowl was anything but a magical, once-in-a-lifetime experience. “We were so emotionally and physically drained by the time we made it to our seats, we were not able to enjoy ourselves,” she says. “We were shaking with exhaustion and dehydration. Our experience was ruined.”

She had company.