Does Selling Alcohol at College Sporting Events Make the Drinking Problem Worse?
It’s no secret that drinking is a major issue on college campuses. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that alcohol consumption on campuses is so embedded in college culture that it is often considered a rite of passage. Students believe that alcohol is a vital component of social functioning. Indeed, it’s been a part of the “college experience” for many years. Yet drinking and particularly binge drinking in college remains a serious public health concern.
There are a number of negative effects from college drinking, with an estimated one in every four college students meeting the diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder. A similar number report academic consequences from drinking, such as missing class, falling behind in class, performing poorly on exams or papers and receiving lower grades overall. Each year nearly 700,000 college students are assaulted by another student who has been drinking. Close to 2,000 students die each year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor-vehicle crashes.
Why sell alcohol during college sporting events?
With the knowledge of the dangers of college binge drinking, many campuses have cracked down on student alcohol consumption. Yet others have begun selling alcohol at sporting events. The number of schools selling alcohol at football games more than doubled over the past six to seven years.
But why contribute to the culture of binge drinking on college campuses with what we know about its dangers? According to Jeff Schemmel, a former university Athletic Director who has served in key leadership positions within the NCAA, “Every institution is looking at how they can increase revenue streams, and alcohol is one of those.” Some athletic directors go so far as to claim that selling alcohol at games will “enhance the fan experience.”
Even before school stadiums began selling alcohol, many students were showing up drunk from tailgating parties. Tailgating is a tradition at most schools and comes with its own risks. West Virginia University targeted the issue of tailgating by selling beer inside the stadium, believing that it would be able to contain some of the binge drinking already taking place in the parking lots. And, according to West Virginia University Police statistics, the school did see a 35 percent decrease in the number of game day alcohol-related incidents once the stadium began selling beer at sporting events.
However, it seems that this decrease in drinking-related incidents is more a result of particular safety policies that West Virginia University put in place than the effect of selling beer at the stadium. Fans have been barred from leaving the game during halftime to return to their tailgate and then re-enter the game. Additionally, the stadium’s beer licenser checks the identification of everyone buying beer, and stops alcohol sales in the middle of the third quarter. It appears these policies are giving the school more control over how much alcohol fans are consuming, and in turn, curbing binge drinking.
How can college binge drinking be limited moving forward?
According to the NIAAA, it’s necessary for college presidents and school administrators to create and endorse appropriate, research-based strategies to limit college drinking. Student health rather than school finances should drive colleges' alcohol-related policies. In the case of West Virginia University, it doesn’t appear that the school’s sale of alcohol was what ultimately prevented binge drinking. Instead, it was pragmatic procedures emphasizing control, monitoring, and harm reduction that helped reduce the risks of student drinking – the kind that should be implemented whenever a university allows alcohol at any event where students of varying ages may be present.
Kate Feiner, MSW
Kate is a Research Associate at Center on Addiction