Should Colleges Sell Alcohol?

College students are going to drink when they go to sporting events. Schools like West Virginia are figuring out how to help them do it more safely. (Getty Images)

College students are going to drink when they go to sporting events. Schools like West Virginia are figuring out how to help them do it more safely. (Getty Images)

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.

3 thoughts on “Should Colleges Sell Alcohol?

  1. I’m on the side of schools selling alcohol at sporting events to fans of-age. I don’t know how much it will really affect students drinking to excess, though. According to the Star Tribune article linked from the College Football Talk link, alcohol related incidents went from 77 in 2010 to 57 in 2011 to 59 in 2012, the first year of sales in stadium; small sample size, but it’s not like selling beer in the stadium affected things positively in that regard. Assuming they’re going to charge stadium rates (so $8+), how many students are going to say, “I’ll gladly pay for beer at the game so I can responsibly enjoy it even though it costs as much for one cup as for the whole six pack of Keystone/Natural/Milwaukee/Local Cheap Brew”. Unless they clamp down on tailgating and drinking elsewhere before the games, most students are going to go with the cost effective method of buying their booze at the store and getting their fill before the game. Not to mention that, for the most part, 3/4 of the undergrads at a given university would be under 21 during football season, so they can’t even take advantage of buying at the game. More money for schools, great; but affecting the alcohol culture of a campus, not so much.

  2. The Houston Cougars, University of Houston, Houston, TX, has always sold beer in the stadium. It never created any problems that hadn’t already existed (IE, young minds/loud mouths), nor were there increased incidents of violence, etc. This in addition to a very healthy tail-gating culture, in which it was pretty much Anything Goes in the parking lot prior to the game. However, if one left the game before the game was over, one could not return to the game.

  3. Pingback: Monday links: concrete gold | Abnormal Returns