School Spirits: Bobcat football and Alcohol Culture

It’s just 50 minutes until kick-off. The stadium is still empty, but everyone is here dressed in a color palette of two. Hot dogs sizzle and the atmosphere is energized as everyone prepares for the game. Here, a large group talks and laughs over beer. There, a few people are playing cornhole, Coors in hand. On the right, kids are throwing around a football while mom and dad mix a drink. On the left, a group is setting up their tailgate. The cooler is established first. Almost symbolically, the rest of the setup is built around the cooler and the group centers around it as drinks are distributed.

What’s perhaps most interesting is that it’s hard to notice the underlying theme if you’re not looking for it. As a community, we’ve become desensitized to the omnipresence of alcohol in our football culture. But at some point, introspection is due. And as the football season kicks off, it is as good a time as any to examine its place in our culture.

 

Tailgating Tradition

Tailgating has been a staple of football games for nearly the entire lifetime of the sport. According to the American Tailgater Association, the first time tailgating took place at a sporting event was in 1869 at the inaugural intercollegiate football game between Princeton and Rutgers. Today it would be difficult to find a football game anywhere without at least one tailgate party. Inextricably linked to those tailgates are images of alcohol. Anheuser-Busch is one of the NFL’s biggest sponsors, even bigger than equipment provider Nike. This high level sponsorship flows down to the collegiate level where even at MSU a number of tailgates display banners with Bud Light or Coors emblazoned on them.

What effect does this high profile of alcohol have on the campus and the community? A wide variety of perspectives are apparent when it comes to such a deeply ingrained cultural phenomenon. The administration, the law enforcement, the student population and other football fans all offer different takes on the situation, and answers to the question. What, if anything, should be done about it?

 

University Response

There’s a level of disagreement among administrators about MSU’s alcohol culture. “It’s a substantial one,” Dean of Students Matt Caires said. “And that’s not Montana State, that’s America … People that go to football [games] like to drink,” he said. MSU President Waded Cruzado commented, “I think that there is a tradition at Montana State University in which alcohol in moderation has been included.”

One issue that both brought up was mid-game departure, where fans stay for the first half of the game and leave the stadium at halftime to continue drinking or leave altogether.

While Cruzado said that she thinks this behavior has “diminished considerably,” Caires disagreed. “I watch it every single home football game,” he said. “I see the stands drastically empty out at half time. And my gut says they’re not leaving to get a sweater. They’re leaving to drink more.”

More than just being noticeable, Caires labels this as a primary concern. “I think that’s where our dangerous levels of intoxication come from.”

Though drinking feels commonplace at the game, data suggests that drinking among MSU students is actually on the decline.

The most recent data from AlcoholEdu, the program mandated by the Montana University System for freshmen to complete before they enter school, shows a downward trend in drinking among freshmen since 2009: revealing that 62 percent of self-reporting freshmen in 2013 don’t drink at all. The numbers show that freshmen at MSU are both less likely to drink and less likely to engage in high-risk drinking than freshmen at other schools.

However, celebrating a steady increase in the percentage of non-drinking students contrasts with the prevalent alcohol consumption around the stadium.

 

Bobcat Culture Goes Viral

“Let’s get fired up,” sing the fans. “The more cups we have the better we feel!”

“Blue Bobcat Cup,” a music video adapting Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup,” was written for the 2012 Quarterback Club Dinner and couldn’t be a better example of the celebrated culture surrounding Bobcat football.

The song quickly gained immense popularity upon its release and was shared by many outlets of the university, even with lyrics like, “You help us take football to a whole new dimension, but sometimes we just get drunk.”

 

The Generational Non-Divide

There are no fewer than 10 distinct tailgating areas around Bobcat Stadium. The tailgates are regulated in a large part by the Bobcat Club, a booster organization affiliated with the MSU Athletic Department. The tailgates engulf the three sides of the stadium open to the public, the area awash with blue and gold. The party atmosphere is intoxicating in and of itself, but when a big game such as Gold Rush or Homecoming rolls around, the party grows.

While it can be easy to assume that all of the debauchery occurs in the student-occupied spaces, it’s not just the young generation. “They [drank] when I was here years ago,” Bill Keith, MSU graduate of 1953, said. “We just didn’t have as much.”

A quick walk through of the more mature Bobcat Club lot on the northwest corner reveals more prevalent and aggressive drinking occurring even sooner before the game. “Most of those problems I see,” said Caires of the tailgating area, “are not students.”

 

Culture Meets Practice

Perhaps an all-too-common question has always been, “Why do we drink at football games?” The answer is always along the same lines no matter who you ask. “It facilitates social interaction among people,” explained MSU student Dillon Haskell. “It’s usually kind of a big deal to drink before the football game.”

One underage student opened up about her drinking experience at last weekend’s game.“I don’t know why [I decided to drink].” She indicated that she wouldn’t have consumed alcohol in other environments but she drank because it was a football game. “I feel like that’s the only time I could get away with something and not be looked down upon. That and peer pressure – you don’t feel as bad when everyone else is doing it too. I think once you get to a certain extent when your judgment’s impaired, you don’t really think about the legal consequences anymore. And I was in an area of the tailgate where I didn’t see any cops so I just wasn’t thinking [about them].”

A stroll around the tailgate area may feel fairly unregulated, but tailgaters are subject to a number of rules relating to behavior, safety and alcohol. This creates a disagreement between administrators and tailgaters over the purpose and culture of the tailgate. “I think there can be responsible use of alcohol along with cooking a few hotdogs, meeting with your friends, cheering on the team, enjoying the game and celebrating or commiserating over the outcome,” explained MSU Chief of Police Robert Putzke, “But I think a lot of people have a different idea about what tailgating is.” The Athletic Department has written tailgating rules regarding alcohol, which have been distributed by MSUPD. They prominently state that alcohol “must be strictly incidental,” meaning it must play a supporting role instead of being the focus of the tailgate.

This has garnered the disapproval of some students like Dillon Haskell. “Three … fraternities last week got a ticket because they didn’t have food,” he said. “I was upset.”

  • Per University Policy, the primary purpose of tailgating must be to provide food and encourage fraternization among family, friends and acquaintances – therefore, the consumption of alcoholic beverages must be strictly incidental, subordinate and complementary to the serving of food in each tailgate spot.
  • Non-alcoholic beverages must also be readily available at each tailgate spot.
  • Each tailgate party must be supervised by the permit holder or their designee who is responsible for tailgate activities and all alcohol at their tailgate spot.
  • The distribution of alcoholic beverages must comply with all statutes and MSU Policies, including distribution to intoxicated or underage persons. Lack of oversight or security of a supply of alcoholic beverages is not an acceptable defense.
  • Competitive consumption of alcoholic beverages in any form is prohibited including as a reward for any type of activity.
  • If alcohol is served at a tailgate party, permit holders must have a designated driver available when leaving. Drivers under the influence of alcohol will be subject to arrest.”

While it’s difficult to tell how many people disagree with the incidental and subordinate clause of the tailgating rules, they’re enforced regardless.

“Everybody who gets a tailgate spot is given the rules,” said Putzke. In short, the rules state: there’s no excuse for not knowing and the owners of tailgate spots are directly responsible for the behavior of people within their tailgate.

 

The Enforcement Piece

The cultural disagreement goes beyond the role of tailgating and into the role of law enforcement and alcohol. “I get really irritated when people are just getting harassed,” expressed Haskell. “Pulling people aside for just looking drunk and finding out that they’re MIP,” he said, “that’s kind of crazy to me.” But Rich McLane, deputy chief of the Bozeman Police Department, refutes this. He said BPD don’t just pull people aside for looking drunk; they pull people aside for looking both drunk and under 21. Police only stop someone when they believe an individual is committing a crime. And this turns out to be all too easy, with four MIPs written in the tailgate area an hour before kick-off on Sept. 6.

Putzke attempted to clear the air further with a clarification of the role of police enforcement of alcohol policy and law. “We don’t look for people that have had X-amount of alcohol,” he explained. “We’re looking for people that have had alcohol to the point where they are a danger to themselves or to someone else.” McLane expressed similar sentiments. “It’s not about numbers or stats or filling a quota,” he said. “It’s about making sure that we try to do our part to keep things safe.”

Beyond their typical citation-writing, the police try to take other paths of enforcement. One clause of the tailgating rules bans glass containers as a safety precaution. Rather than citing everyone who violates that rule, police provide plastic cups into which tailgaters can empty their glass bottle – ensuring safe disposal of the glass and encouraging people to not bring glass the next time. Still, it’s easy to point to the police as simply individuals out to get you. “Every enforcement action that we take is not punitive; it’s not designed to pick on people, it’s purely for public safety and the safety of the individual,” Putzke said.

Before the end of the first half during Gold Rush game, Putzke came across an unconscious male on the concrete under the bleachers. Putzke transported the student to the police tent to have some food and water and incidentally found out that he was underage, consequently receiving a citation for MIP after blowing a BAC of over two times the legal limit. Putzke stressed the purpose is to always ensure the health and safety of the populace.

But it seems like dissent will exist regardless. “The problem is when you have university administrators coming down hard on this,” Haskell said about underage drinking. He believes enforcement “makes it even more dangerous.” “If I’m afraid of being caught for drinking alcohol,” he explained, “I’m going to binge drink more often.”

 

Unexpected Reality

Despite the feeling of extreme and problematic alcohol prevalence, with police action always at the front of public attention, it can be easy to assume that alcohol-related crime is pervasive. But even at football games where 20,000 people are crammed into less than a square half mile, the numbers show a different story.

“I think we’re sort of on the middle-to-low end of what I’ve seen at universities across the country,” said Putzke. Out of the 19,187 people in attendance at the Gold Rush game, a mere 27 citations were written: effectively one for every 711th person. Twenty of these citations were for minor in possession (MIP), not including 3 warnings for MIP, and all four arrests were related to alcohol.

“If you look at the game through the lens of the police officers, it looks like there’s nothing but alcohol arrests. But we’re just a tiny, tiny percentage of the total activity over there,” points out Putzke. The few arrests or citations being issued by police at the games may seem prominent, but the actual number must be put into perspective for an event of its size.

Off campus, things play out similarly. “The game is the quietest time in the city,” said McLane. The hours following the game’s conclusion do see an increase in activity, but nothing truly notable.

McLane provided crime data, compiled as “calls for service,” which include everything from 911 hang-ups to officers pulling over drunk drivers. Aggregated data from twelve Saturdays in the fall of 2013 (including six home game days), and two Saturdays this fall (including Gold Rush on Sept. 6) showed that while the average number of calls was higher on home game days, the difference was not statistically significant as compared to non-home game Saturdays.

In a further check, alcohol-related crimes were totaled for all 14 days. Alcohol-related crimes were those that either explicitly (e.g. DUI, MIP) or implicitly (e.g. disorderly conduct, parties) involved alcohol. While on average, game days had a higher number of alcohol-related calls for service, but the increase was not found to be statistically significant.

 

Solutions to a Nebulous Problem

With so many varied and conflicting perspectives, identifying if a problem exists and what that problem may be is difficult at best and borderline impossible at worst. Even so, every season ideas are floated, but few changes have taken place in recent memory aside from a slight tailgate location restructuring in 2008.

“It’s time to have a conversation about the reentry policy,” Caires said. Rumors have spread every once in a while about allowing beer sales in the stadium and then not allowing re-entry into the stadium as a possible way to cut down on drinking culture. Unintuitive as that may seem, the idea would be a way to get people in their seats back in time for the third quarter and a way to limit the binge drinking that occurs during halftime. However, none of the suggestions have gained much, if any, serious administrative progress or traction. At Bobcat football games, alcohol is only sold in the box seats and not to the general audience although over 20 other collegiate stadiums sell beer within their on-campus stadiums to the general public.

There’s still a problem with the attainability of alcohol for underage students at the tailgate. It “doesn’t matter if they’re not of age, it’s so easy to get alcohol,” stated Haskell. With one of the main goals of both police and administrators being the reduction of underage drinking (particularly at university-sanctioned events), this must be a top concern. It’s one thing to host a drinking culture, it’s another to host an illegal one.

On the policy side, many agree that current policies appear to be effective. “I think the university community here has a very responsible use of alcohol policy,” stated Putzke. As for future change, “It’s got to be what the institution and the community determines it needs to be.”

Cruzado thinks the university is on the right path, but like many things, the effort to improve may never cease. “We are making inroads. We still need to continue working. I’m not saying that everything is perfect yet, but it’s better and we have more students committed to having fun without being dependent on alcohol.” As emphasized by other administrators, Cruzado stated the explicit goal of university action on alcohol behavior is “to provide a safe environment for our students.”

Marci Torres, director of MSU Health Promotion, clarified what the university wants to see in behavioral change. “That term alcohol prevention — we’re not completely trying to prevent the use of alcohol. We’re trying to make sure that people are actually following the law and doing what they’re supposed to and that they’re being responsible about their behaviors.”

The best way we can combat irresponsible alcohol use, offered Haskell, “is to create a culture … where peer pressure kind of stands strong.” When “it’s just not really acceptable to get [drunk] at a football game,” when student leaders and the student body as a whole makes it clear that excessive intoxication is unacceptable, people will change their behaviors.

But an easy assumption is being made here: that we have a culture that supports alcohol consumption. Or that we have a collective belief that alcohol consumption is prominent.

It’s widely known that perception can shape reality. That is, what you think you see is true to you. So what if our biggest problem is self-perpetuating misperception? Torres claims that’s the proximate problem. “For me the most important thing is that people understand that not everybody in college drinks,” Torres said. She thinks the perception of public drinking at football games is likely inflated and consequently encouraging cultural perpetuation. “Perception is often very different than reality and that’s part of the problem around these behaviors and what facilitates a culture of drinking.” A lot of people are under the impression that everyone at the game is consuming alcohol, “but do we really know that?” “We’re creating this culture around perception,” Torres explained, and “if we want to change that culture we have to change the perception.”

While attempting to change culture and mass normal behavior is difficult to impossible, changing perception might not be. Torres, with a formal education in public health, thinks that education is key. But before we can educate people, there has to be an understanding of what’s actually happening. “If we can verify that [large-scale drinking] is an actual behavior that’s happening,” Torres said, “then we can address it.”

Caires echoed Torres’ call to action. “Maybe it’s time to do a study,” said Caires. “I think that’s one of the things that really is needed: good data.” After studying the issue further, the dean of students argued that what really needs to be done is to “shift culture.” That “can’t be done by a person,” Caires explained. “It has to be done by a coalition of people.” But can we do that? “I think we can,” Caires answered. “Do we need to shift it? I think the time is right to do so.”

 

  • Sabre Moore

    Very well done, guys. Solid reporting, good pictures and an excellent framing of the story. Wish I could have seen it in print!