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Archive for Sunday, February 14, 1999

2-14-99BILL MAYER COLUMN

February 14, 1999

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That old bit about "what goes around comes around" can herald good or bad things. Where booze and college athletics are concerned, it's good.

In the mid-1950s, Kansas football coach Chuck Mather flatly refused beer producer sponsorships of Jayhawk games on moral grounds. Athletics director Dutch Lonborg was quick to back him up. That wasn't an easy choice, even in conservative Kansas. KU wasn't a world-beater or a big crowd lure under Chuck. The program could have used some extra money, little though it might have been by today's standards.

But things liberalized, 1960s-style, and gradually alcohol-laced products began to make a huge impact in the athletic advertising and promotion markets of America.

How bad did it get? How severe is the drinking problem among today's youngsters? Kentucky is regarded by some as the bourbon and branchwater mecca of the world. But on and around the U. of Kentucky campus at Lexington there were enough major tragedies involving kids, athletes included, that the school took what to many was a surprising step. Athletics director C.M. Newton announced that the school was severing all its advertising and promotional ties with the Lords of the Land of Grog. You can look for many other schools to follow suit, considering the severity of the youth drinking epidemic. Kentucky will no longer risk being an enabler and encourager. May its tribe increase.

KU '99 is no different from UK '99. We know of two under-age students who recently had their lives re-ordered drastically by over-imbibing -- one dead, one serving time. Living groups have encountered innumerable messes because of the boozing and binge-drinking. But the problem keeps growing, whether the residences are "organized" animal houses or not. Local police entered a fraternity house to check on stolen goods and found a sophisticated batch of gear to turn out false identification tags to facilitate juvenile ingestion and related abuses.

KU chancellor Bob Hemenway, who has also been the head man at Kentucky, is one of the leaders of a local combined effort to cope with kids on the bottle. We can only hope authorities, courts and such back up their program and don't pander to snot-nosed, below-21 kids who get carded by police and bartenders then dredge up some legal linthead to contend he's protecting their "rights." To what? Privacy, a cutoff of funds from home or self-destruction?

We get this cheap romance from 18-20-year-olds who use that old herring that "if I'm old enough to fight for my country, I'm old enough to drink." Nuts, as the guy said at Bastogne. I came home from Europe in June of 1945 with an Air Corps commission, navigator wings, combat experience, even a few ribbons and went to downtown Kansas City to meet a rich uncle for lunch.

He proudly took me over to meet a batch of guys at the old Hotel Muehlebach and they offered to buy a pre-meal drink -- you know, one "for the boys." The waitress looked at this kid (I looked that young, as so many of us did), who wouldn't be 21 until April of 1946. She dutifully asked for ID. She sheepishly said she couldn't serve me, apologizing with, "I'm so sorry, lieutenant!"

The older guys tried to argue, there were no ACLU shills on hand at the time and I backed off quickly, since it had happened before. I ordered a Coke. The law was the law, we accepted it; no sense raising a stink the way so many dolts do now.

Back around 1970 the drug abuse problem was expanding here and the Journal-World did a 25-piece series on the subject. I interviewed the late Dr. Ray Schwegler of student health. He said that while some of the "best and brightest" on the Hill were fooling around with pot, LSD and even heroin, the Watkins Hospital people saw about 15 cases of alcohol abuse to each single incident of "the other." That hasn't changed. Self-indulgent athletes, male and female, are as much endangered as any other segment of the student body. There's more "student athlete" boozing than most would ever dream.

Now consider the views of an expert on irresponsible youths, their follies and frailties. His name is Dean Smith, an Emporia-Topeka product, former KU athlete and now the retired basketball coaching legend at North Carolina:

"Drinking is a huge social problem. We've had tragedy in Chapel Hill, as almost every campus has. Not long ago (ACC commissioner) Gene Corrigan . . . said, `We've got a surplus (of money) and we need to do something to fight drugs.' Well, conference revenue is mostly TV revenue and a lot of that is from beer advertising. . . . no one laughed at the suggestion that we fight drugs with alcohol money, when alcohol is the drug of choice on college campuses. It's hypocritical for a college conference to have student athletes tell young people they should say no to drugs when we say yes to beer ads. They have great ads, but alcohol and alcohol-related incidents are a leading cause of death in the United States for people 25 and under. . . . I do enjoy the occasional beer, and certainly adults should have that choice. I just don't want our children and grandchildren to be encouraged to drink beer while they watch college basketball."

Going around and coming around is by no means all bad.

-- Bill Mayer's phone message number is 832-7147. His e-mail address is bmayer@ljworld.com.

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