Joey Chestnut lamented briefly putting a protester in lockdown Monday during the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating competition — and he also explained his actions during a phone interview with USA TODAY Sports.
Chestnut, who was standing in the middle of the raised stage on July 4 in Coney Island, New York, quickly resumed pushing the sausage into his mouth after the accident. The video of the moment went viral after Chestnut won his 15th title in 16 years.
“As soon as I caught the guy, I realized he was a kid,” Chestnut told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday. “I felt so bad afterwards. I was just excited, just focused on getting back to eating.
“It is unfortunate. I hope it does not happen. It is a problem.”
The protester was Scott Gilbertson, 21, of Berkeley, California, who has been charged with criminal trespassing, disorderly conduct and harassment, according to the New York Police Department (NYPD). He was one of three protesters, all animal rights activists working with a grassroots group Direct action is called everywhere.
“It felt definitely unnecessary,” Gilbertson told USA TODAY Sports of Chestnut. “I was wearing the mask so I couldn’t see who it was. I assumed it was a security guard. And then when I saw the video, it was Joey. I was surprised.”
Chestnut, 38, said the mask that obstructed Gilbertson’s vision also provoked Chestnut’s reaction.
“I was a little freaked out because he was wearing the mask,” Chestnut said. ‘I saw the mask and thought that’s when I realized it didn’t belong here.’
Gilbertson and two protesters wore masks of Star Wars “Stormtroopers” and Darth Vader and displayed “Death Star Smithfield Revealed” banners.
‘Deathstar’ reference compares the massive, sinister weapon from the Star Wars movie series to the nation’s largest hog farm, Smithfield Foods’ Four Circle Farms in Milford, Utah, ‘Direct Action Everywhere’ Wrote in a press release.
Nathan’s is a trademark licensed by Smithfield, which Direct Action Everywhere has claimed endangers worker safety, public health, and animal welfare.
Matt Johnson, press coordinator for Direct Action Everywhere, said Chestnut’s reaction was “extremely violent”.
“I think it was very easy to see,” Johnson said. “I’m going to stop him for a bit. You’re in the heat of the moment, that’s really intense, he’s trained a lot for it, and it means a lot to him. He’s not Public Enemy #1 or anything, but it’s a very excessive response to a peaceful protest.”
After watching the video, Chestnut likened his reaction to a dog showing food aggression—in this case, a protester threatens to switch between Chestnut and his sausage dogs.
“That’s what it reminded me of,” he said.
He added, “It seems like an exaggeration.”.. “But in my position, I don’t know, I’ve been waiting so long for the competition and wish that he (Gilbertson) would have stood by me and never touched him. If he hadn’t lied to me and stood in front of me, that wouldn’t have been a problem. But I also hope they don’t go up to the stage.”
Gilbertson said his neck hurt from the strangulation but he doesn’t think it’s anything serious.
“I have nothing against Joey as a person,” he said. “I was just trying to get my message out there and my organization’s message there. I wasn’t trying to push it. I put on the mask and it obstructed my peripheral vision.
“I was trying to stand in front of him. I couldn’t see how close I was to him and I kind of pushed him. So I can understand, I think, why he might have overreacted. But I think the extent of his reaction wasn’t necessary.”
The entire confrontation lasted no more than five seconds, as manager George Shea dragged the protester away from the chestnuts as the competitive eating champ resumed devouring sausages and buns during the 10-minute contest.
The two other protesters — Robert Yamada, 42, of Phoenix and Joshua Marksin, 31, of Santa Clara, California — have been charged with criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct during the incident, according to the New York Police Department.
Chestnut said people’s reaction to the way he handled the protester was mixed. He said his fiancée received a direct message on Instagram that the incident was a red flag for abusive behavior and she should not be with Chestnut.
“For the most part, my family is happy that I didn’t let it bother me and was able to carry on,” Chestnut said.
Chestnut said he believes the protester’s incident may have cost him three sausages. Ate 63, 20 ahead of runner-up Jeffrey Esper.
Shea, the contest’s longtime director, said he believed the protesters’ efforts had been unsuccessful.
“The end result of this effort on their part was to turn Joey into an epic hero if he wasn’t already,” Shea said. “To promote him further in the world of epic heroes, that was the end result.”