By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
CHAPEL HILL — Tar Heel athletics officials pushing for wine and beer sales in some 3,000 new Kenan Stadium luxury seats insist that the idea is not “out of step” with what is going on in other sports arenas across the country but haven’t said that it squares with the University’s overall strategy to prevent alcohol abuse on campus.
“No doubt university officials would like to see less drinking at UNC and yet they would be moving in the opposite direction by promoting alcohol use — even to a limited number of fans — during football games,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “This makes even less sense since alcohol abuse is typically higher than normal at sporting events.”
The change in alcohol policy would serve as a marketing lure to companies and alumni whose purchase of the 20 private suites ($50,000 per season) and additional club boxes ($1,500 to $2,500 per season) would help fund the stadium’s $80 million addition. It is not clear if beer and wine would be sold in the luxury seating or handed out as part of the ticket price or if the suite’s occupants would distribute it. But officials say no alcohol would be allowed in general seating or student sections.
“The fact that they’re in private boxes will keep it contained, philosophically and physically,” McKay Coble, chairwoman of the university faculty told the Raleigh News and Observer.
But alcohol researchers don’t see it that way.
“While the donor section can be physically separated from the student seating area, the idea that alcohol is so important that successful people need it to get through a game cannot,” said Henry Wechsler, lead investigator of the College Alcohol Study at the Harvard University School of Public Health. “UNC should consider carefully the message that they are sending to students: ‘Do as we say, not as we do.'”
“Most colleges have alcohol control policies to deter students from drinking,” he added. “They do this because binge drinking presents a serious problem on campus.”
Alcohol abuse at UNC has been in the news already this school year. In fact, the very first weekend students returned to campus in August resulted in 28 alcohol related arrests, with 24 of those Tar Heel students. In October, The Daily Tar Heel reported that drunk and disruptive arrests had more than doubled in the past few years: from 10 in the 2006-2007 session to 28 in 2008-2009. Student alcohol poisonings have also increased, according to a report from WRAL. Some 51 cases were reported last year, up from 28 the year before.
University officials have said that more students are bringing an established drinking history with them when they arrive on campus, with a recent UNC poll showing that 16 is the average age of students’ first consuming alcohol.
Dean Blackburn, assistant dean of students, told the media in the fall that the university is working to change the culture regarding underage and excessive alcohol use. Among the Campus Health Services’ long term goals is “create an environment that engages the entire university community to promote healthy behaviors and positive choices,” with one strategy being to “increase the availability of attractive, student-centered, alcohol free social activities located both on and off the campus.”
“Why wouldn’t the university want to use sporting events, which already draw huge crowds to promote these healthy behaviors?” said the Rev. Creech. “Earlier this year, Rick Steinbacher, associate athletic director at UNC-Chapel Hill spoke out against the Anheuser-Busch ‘fan can’ promotion but less than six months later, the University’s changing policies will further forge the link between college sports and alcohol.”
Despite the university’s contention that it is “in step” with other college arena policies, the Wall Street Journal reported in September that only about a third of the roughly 120 largest NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Division 1 schools allow beer sales inside their stadiums. In some cases, alcohol is allowed in because the stadiums are owned and operated by a municipality or a local sports authority that sets policy, the article said, but added that “Most colleges, already struggling with underage drinking on campus, frown on beer sales in their stadiums.”
Alcohol sales became a hot topic at the University of Minnesota when the Gophers moved their games from the publicly owned Metrodome, where beer was sold all over, to the school’s new TCF Bank Stadium in September. To tighten control but still allow sales, University officials had planned to offer alcohol in luxury seating, a situation somewhat like UNC has in mind. But state lawmakers passed a bill requiring the school to offer alcohol throughout the stadium or not at all, so the administration decided that a total beer ban was in order. Then they went further to set up a program whereby student season ticket-holders who are ejected from a game for intoxication offenses have to take a breath alcohol test to get in next time.
Gerald Reinhart, Minnesota’s vice provost for student affairs, told the New York Times that banning alcohol sales, even though it cost the school an estimated $1 million in revenue, has been the right choice.
“If alcohol was served in that stadium, our problems would be multiples worse than they are now,” he said.
Ervin Cox, the school’s assistant dean of students, agreed.
“You can have a couple of beers and a brat at a tailgate. But if you’ve got to drink at a college football game, there’s a problem with that,” he told the Times.
Although alcohol abuse prevention organizations have heavily lobbied the NCAA to do more, the organization has stopped short of imposing regulations on regular season events at its member schools. But it has banned alcohol sales and signage at the championship events it controls.
Nonetheless college sports has long been linked with alcohol, particularly beer, the college students’ drink of choice.
A 2007 study at the University of Texas found that its students drank more on football game days than on Halloween, New Year’s Eve or the last day of fall semester classes. Similarly, a study released in April examined public arrest records in a town with a successful NCAA Division 1 football program and showed that football game days were associated with the highest number of arrests, higher than “normal” days and holidays.
“Specifically, on average there were 70.3 arrests on each football game day, compared to 12.3 arrests on non-game ‘control Saturdays,’ and 11.8 arrests on holidays,” according to University of Florida researchers who said offenses committed on game days generally occurred closer to the stadium than crimes reported on other days.
“Though efforts have been made to combat excessive drinking on holidays, more effort is needed to address the significant binge drinking among students and other spectators that is associated with high-profile collegiate sporting events,” they concluded.