Beer and sports like popcorn and movies
Friday, December 13, 2002
News item: A Harvard study shows sports fans in colleges binge on beer, wine and booze more than students who aren't fans.
Now we need a study to see whether college sports fans binge on chips, hot dogs and pretzels more. Bet they also gamble more.
It hardly takes a study like Harvard's, which surveyed 14,000 students at 119 four-year colleges in 39 states, to realize that too many fans are loaded at games.
The evidence is on their breath and in their behavior. It's in the rising number of fan arrests and the wreckage they leave behind in the stadiums and on the roads.
It could be seen in the riots and fires in the streets of Columbus, Ohio, when Ohio State beat Michigan a few weeks ago to earn a shot at the national football title.
It could be seen in the madness of fans and the barrage of glass bottles and plastic souvenirs hurled onto the field at Washington State when it lost a triple-overtime game to Washington.
Nobody needed an academic survey to know there was a problem when Clemson fans celebrated a victory over South Carolina by tearing down the goal posts, when California and Stanford fans got into brawls at the Big Game, or when 21 fans were arrested and three were injured following North Carolina State's win over Florida State.
For those who wanted the numbers to back up what everybody in college sports already knew, Harvard has them, and they're not pretty.
"We know that student-athletes binge drink more than non-athletes, but until now, no one has taken a systematic look at fans," said Toben F. Nelson, co-author of the study for the Harvard School of Public Health. "It turns out that fans are similar to athletes in their extreme drinking behavior, and that behavior has played out the last few weeks in the form of riots after a game, win or loss."
Violence at college football games has gotten worse all over the country this year. Maybe it has to do with the increasing violence of our times, as sports sociologist Richard Lapchick suggests. Maybe it has to do with the kinds of stupid, thoughtless acts that seem more and more tolerated, even celebrated, the Jerry Springer world twisting out of control.
Probably, though, it has a lot to do, plain and simple, with too much drinking and too much hawking of beer in college towns.
The Harvard study defined binge drinking for men as having five or more alcoholic drinks in a short period; for women, it's four drinks. Some 53 percent of college sports fans usually binged when drinking, compared with about 40 percent of non-fans. Fans were more likely to consider drinking "to get drunk" an important reason for drinking.
"The strong tie of sports to a heavy-drinking lifestyle at American colleges is no accident," says Dr. Henry Wechsler, the other co-author of the study. "It has taken many millions of dollars in advertising at sports events and ongoing financial support of sports programs at many colleges over many decades to forge that link.
"Whether you win or lose, you're encouraged to drink. You cry in your beer if you lose and you celebrate by downing a few if you win."
Beer and sports are as closely connected in our culture as popcorn and movies. Popcorn drowned in butter may bump up cholesterol levels, but it hardly causes the damage heavy drinking does.
Predictably, the beer industry pleads innocent to any complicity in the problem on campuses.
"The scientific evidence says advertising doesn't cause people who don't drink to drink," says Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute. "It doesn't cause people who drink to drink more."
Sure. And guns don't kill, people do. And Joe Camel didn't put cigarettes in the mouths of young smokers. There are lots of ways for the alcohol, gun and tobacco industries to wiggle away from responsibility for the harm they cause.
Becker is probably right that all the beer ads, on their own, don't cause nondrinkers to drink, or drinkers to guzzle more. But they contribute mightily to the association between drinking and sports. In college towns, the ads are aimed at, or least seen by, thousands of underage drinkers who may not know when to call it quits.
Is that the beer industry's fault? Not entirely. Is it the school or the community's fault. Not entirely.
Binge drinking, drunken misbehavior at games and fan violence are problems for everyone in sports, and have been for a long time. The difference between recent episodes and those in decades past is how often they've been happening in so many places.
The question now is whether the NCAA, the individual schools, local lawmakers, parents and the students, themselves, are ready to make changes. The answer is not in prohibition but in heightened security, stiffer penalties for drunken fans, treatment programs, and campaigns that chip away at the notion that it takes a couple of bottles of wine or a six-pack of beer to enjoy a game.
Steve Wilstein is a sports columnist for The Associated Press.