Michigan cracks down on tailgating traditions

Maryanne George and Maryanne George

By Maryanne George

Knight Ridder Newspapers

Tailgating goes with football like bratwurst and beer, a revered tradition bringing college students, alumni and fans together in the shadow of the stadiums. But college administrators are cracking down after seeing the parties too often turn into dangerous booze-fests, like those where fans pound five drinks in 10 minutes during drinking games.

Alarmed by a steady increase in alcohol-related incidents and an alleged sexual assault after a game last month, Michigan State University announced new rules this week designed to curb binge drinking. Starting Saturday, loyal Spartans attending the Illinois game had to leave their drinking games at home. Tailgating lots will be opened five hours before kickoff and close two hours after the game. The lots had previously opened at 7 a.m., according to MSU spokesman Terry Denbow.

“Tailgating is not the problem,” Denbow said. “It’s the misuse of alcohol that’s the problem. These changes will preclude a full day of drinking. This is a health and safety issue.”

Dr. Beth Alexander, MSU’s university physician, said several drinking games, including “Beer Pong,” require participants–mostly students–to consume five or six drinks in 10 minutes.

“A 120-pound woman who drank like that could have a blood-alcohol as high as 0.3,” said Alexander, who served on a university task force to develop the new guidelines. “You start to die at 0.3. A 160-pound man could reach a level of 0.2 drinking this way.”

Alcohol-related incidents at MSU football games have risen 48 percent, from 291 in 2002 to 432 last year, according to MSU police statistics.

An alleged sexual assault of a 20-year-old female student by a 23-year old man–who is not a student–after the Sept. 18 Notre Dame game prompted the immediate changes, Denbow said. They are part of a pilot program that will be re-evaluated at the end of the football season. The alleged assault is still under investigation.

Drinking games were also banned at Central Michigan University’s Kelly/Shorts Stadium as part of an update to the school’s tailgating policy. Tailgating is also banned during the game, said CMU spokesman Mike Silverthorn.

Western Michigan University administrators are using posters, advertisements and a Web site to publicize the school’s tailgating policy. They are also encouraging students to spread out in many parking lots, rather than concentrating in the traditional student lot, said spokesman Matt Kurz.

At UM, most student-tailgating goes on in student neighborhoods off campus, and tailgating in the various parking lots is overseen by city and university police who enforce underage-drinking and other laws. But university spokeswoman Diane Brown said UM administrators are seeing more people at football games who are more intoxicated this year, as well as students who are playing drinking games at their home parties.

A new tailgating policy at Eastern Michigan University this year aimed at the homecoming game–where tailgating problems often peak–has led to fewer problems, said spokeswoman Jennifer Schrage. Tailgating hours are limited, access to the parties is restricted to students and others 21 years and older and they are limited to a six-pack of beer.

Shea Kisabeth, 20, an EMU junior from Plymouth, served as a “sober monitor” for a party last Saturday sponsored by his fraternity, Sigma Nu.

“The new policy cut back on problems,” he said. “The six-beer limit meant people couldn’t get all wasted at the tailgate and make dumb decisions. I have seen people getting ridiculously drunk.”

At MSU, members of the school’s fraternities and sororities decided last month to impose their own limits on their tailgating parties held outside the MSU Auditorium on the banks of the Red Cedar River, according to Douglas Bingham, vice president of MSU’s Interfraternity Council.

“After the Sept. 11 game against Central, we imposed changes because we saw too many people getting too drunk,” said Bingham, 22, a senior from Livonia and a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon. Bingham said after the policy change, he saw fewer people who were dangerously drunk at the parties.

But some students feel left out of the decisions about the policy changes, said Andrew Schepers, chairman of the Student Assembly for the Associated Students of Michigan State University. Students rioted in 1998 after administrators banned alcohol on Munn Field near Spartan Stadium, claiming the policy was imposed without adequate input.

A Web poll conducted this week by the State News, the student newspaper, found that 63 percent of 604 respondents opposed the ban, 28 percent favored it, and 8 percent said they didn’t care.

“I really don’t know how this is going to play out,” said Schepers, 23, a senior from McBain, Mich. “Some students will try to test it, and some will go along with it. Something needed to be done, but there needs to be more conversations with students.”