The hypocrisy that plagues big-time collegiate athletics isn’t irksome because colleges are secretly only pretending to educate people and contribute to their personal growth, but because colleges pretend this is the only thing they do. Colleges, even public ones, are businesses. (You can’t teach if you’re unable break even while paying for classrooms and professors.) This inconvenient reality informs most decisions administrators make, but for whatever reason, they often feel like they need to reframe business decisions as being made because of some moral obligation or because, to crib a phrase from the college coach lexicon, they just care so much about these kids.
This partly feigned, partly genuine concern for the welfare of the student body, it turns out, provides remarkably good cover for everything from not paying D-I football players to jacking up tuition costs, but with regard to certain problems, it is the enemy of common sense.
The ongoing debate about whether or not to sell alcohol at sporting events on college campuses has picked up over the past five years. It’s easy to see why the issue itself is hard to breach, from a public relations perspective: All that higher learning, looking out for the kids stuff is difficult to reconcile with providing them with $9 beers. Regardless of that discrepancy, hawking Bud Light in the Big House is actually a good idea.
Some schools have figured this out through experimentation. One of the vanguards was West Virginia, which allowed beer to be sold at football games in 2011. Part of athletic director Oliver Luck’s argument was that he believes adults should be able to make their own decisions, but he also claimed it would increase in-stadium civility.
If that sounds counterintuitive, consider this: People are going to get drunk and go to college football games. You’re not going to stop them from doing this, whether they’re loading up on booze before entering the turnstiles, slipping a flask into their crotch or buying beverages at the game itself. The problem is, trying to figure out how hammered to get if you’re not going to be able to drink for three hours is impossible calculus, so what happens is a not-unnoticeable segment of fans end up barely being able to stand as the game is starting. If you sell beer at the stadium, fewer people are likely to slam a half-bottle of Smirnoff before they show up. You can also stop selling beer at halftime or at the end of the third quarter, which helps prevent people from getting too loaded.
As any owner of a pro sports team can tell you, it’s also lucrative to sell watery macrobrews at a ridiculous markup. Minnesota, which started selling beer and wine at games in 2012, managed to lose money that first year, but that was due primarily to one-time startup costs and an inequitable contract with their beverage vendor. During the 2013 season, they made upwards of $180,000 in profits and had a decrease in alcohol-related incidents. (What a fun euphemism that is! I assume it means people getting hauled out by security and/or medical personnel.) West Virginia raked in about $700,000 in 2011 from beer sales and their alcohol-related incidents went down by 30 percent.
More and more universities — the ones that don’t have state and city laws standing in their ways, at least — are discussing the possibility of making alcohol available to of-age fans. Hopefully the schools that are on the fence are looking at what the Gophers and Mountaineers have done and seeing that it’s a win-win proposition that nets them some cash and leads to less bleacher-puking.
Alcohol is one of those strange things that’s both prevalent in our culture and somehow still taboo. That’s the hurdle I worry about in terms of this issue. There are some forward-thinking schools and athletic directors who see beer at games as a pragmatic partial solution to a problem that’s not going away, and then there are and will continue to be others who take a sort of abstinence-is-the-best-sex-education approach to booze, acting like they can encourage students not to drink just by making beer a little more scarce. As an increasingly large handful of schools are admitting, college kids are going to drink when they go to ballgames. You can nudge them in the direction of doing this responsibly, or you can ignore the problem entirely, but both those choices have consequences, some more messy than others.