Archive for Wednesday, August 15, 2001

Alcohol, games don’t mix

August 15, 2001


At dinner recently the discussion turned to the proposal which has surfaced to permit alcoholic beverages at tailgate parties on the Kansas University campus. I was pleased to discover that most of the folks present were opposed to the idea. As I thought more about it, I realized that this proposal, seemingly trivial at first, actually raises serious legal, ethical, moral, and educational issues, issues about which the entire university community as well as the general population of Lawrence and Douglas County ought to be quite concerned.

From the news reports, it would seem that the idea behind the proposal is that attendance at football games has not been what the university hoped for in recent years. We all know that is true. Apparently, some officials believe that we would have greater attendance at football games if we were to abandon the current prohibition against serving alcoholic beverages on campus during tailgate parties.

In essence, the reasoning here would seem to be that if we let people drink more, then they'll have more fun and, therefore, more people will attend games. Further, we are told, alcoholic beverages are permitted on many campuses, so why should we be different?

To begin with, one might ask whether even these rather simplistic reasons are, in fact, accurate. I suspect that many longtime and loyal K.U. fans will not be pleased if alcohol flows freely on campus before games. Increased alcohol consumption usually leads to increased rowdiness, at the very least. And this can be a problem in the stadium even if alcohol is only permitted outside the stadium, for people simply drink too much on the grounds before the game.

Second, if the end purpose of our efforts is no more than to increase attendance by letting people have a "good" time, then, perhaps, we also ought to consider permitting such other activities as gambling on campus before games. We could set up tents for poker and other games of chance to increase attendance and revenues as well. The whole point, however, is that K.U. is a university engaged in an educational mission of teaching, research, and service to the people of Kansas, and not simply entertainment and revenue enhancement at any cost.

On the legal side I think that there are some extremely serious issues that must be raised about this proposal. First, of course, is the question of drunken driving. Driving under the influence of alcohol is a crime in Kansas, as it is in all states. It is a crime because of the catastrophic consequences that result when people drink and drive. Thousands of men and women are killed and maimed each year because of drunken drivers.

Most people drive to football games. Indeed, the whole idea of a tailgate party revolves around automobiles. Do we want to further tempt fans to drink and drive by turning the KU parking lots into open air bars? Does KU want to be a party to a rule that will, at least in my opinion, inevitably lead to greater numbers of DUI incidents in Lawrence and throughout Kansas after every game. Do we want to create even greater problems for our already overworked law enforcement officers?

Further, KU football games have traditionally been attended by large numbers of KU undergraduates, many of whom are too young to drink legally. Are we so naive as to believe that permitting alcoholic beverages on campus on game days will not also lead to increased numbers of students gaining access illegally to such beverages.

There are also moral and ethical dimensions to this proposal. As a university, our first and primary mission must be the education of the youth of the state of Kansas. That education takes place as much outside the classroom as in it. Ask any faculty or staff member at KU and they will tell you that student drinking is a problem. It is a problem at virtually every American university.

KU has been exceptionally good about taking as many steps to moderate and, if possible, eliminate, student drinking as it can. How would this proposed change in policy fit within the general anti-alcohol policies now in effect on campus? Should we really believe that we can gain the confidence and trust of our students when we tell them that they should not drink, but then turn around and permit drinking when it suits our financial goals? To me, and I expect to many students, such a position would seem to be hypocritical at best.

Finally, there is a serious question involved in this proposal that goes to the very heart of the nature of KU as a university. When American universities first became involved in intercollegiate sports over a century ago, the justification for this was that sports were part of the educational mission of the university. Sports teach students many important lessons about commitment, teamwork, and a healthy desire to win.

Intercollegiate sports build school spirit and provide a common activity which students can share with faculty and alumni. Sports keep many alumni involved with the university, and a winning team can be a great source of pride for alumni, pride which can lead to increased financial support for all of the university's activities.

But today many people fear that intercollegiate sports are also becoming a corrupting influence on campus and that increased commercialization of intercollegiate athletics, particularly the siren song of television and its millions of dollars in potential revenue, is damaging the educational mission of the university. More and more people are growing concerned about how money and not education is the primary driving force behind intercollegiate athletics.

Increased attendance at football games is a desirable goal, but only if increased attendance furthers the true mission of the university. Increased attendance for its own sake or as a route to greater revenues must not become a primary goal and it must not overshadow what should be the primary goals of intercollegiate sports.

When deciding whether to accept or reject this new proposal, senior university officials should make their judgement based upon the extent to which changing our policy on alcohol consumption serves those primary goals of education, of sportsmanship, of community feeling. If they do make their judgements based on these criteria, I suspect that they will realize that those goals would be better served without a change in policy. There are other, less harmful ways to increase attendance at games. Let's explore those and abandon this one.

Mike Hoeflich is a professor in the Kansas University School of Law.

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