The high stakes of beer at TCU games

07/05/2014 12:00 AM

07/03/2014 7:33 PM

It’s disappointing that Mac Engel’s sports-column opinion that TCU should sell beer openly at football games was stated in such simplistic terms. (See “TCU needs to follow SMU’s lead on beer sales,” June 29)

His rationale seems to be:

• TCU previously gave up a pretense of being a church-related school.
• There is a lot of money to be made.
• Everybody else is doing it (every parent’s favorite rationale).
• People are already drinking in parking lots and sneaking alcohol into the stands, so why shouldn’t TCU profit?

But there are other, more serious issues at stake.

The federal government has recently called attention to the near-epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses and the role alcohol plays. In 2013, the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism released statistics indicating that each year:

• Nearly 100,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.
• Approximately 600,000 students are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.
• Nearly half of students are binge drinkers.
• More than 1,800 college students die from alcohol-related unintended injuries.
• About one-fourth of college students report negative academic consequences as a result of their drinking.
• More than 150,000 students develop alcohol-related health problems.
• Between 1.2 and 1.5 percent of students indicate that they attempted suicide as a result of drinking or drug use.

Let’s think about the messages colleges may unintentionally send to young people.

College athletics has become more about the experience than about the game. Is it impossible to have an enjoyable experience without alcohol?

Does it make sense for the college to be an open purveyor of beer when a significant percentage of students are not of legal drinking age?

Does it make sense that a school should, in effect, say, “You can’t drink yet, but when you’re old enough, then you can enjoy the full benefit of this spectator experience”?

Routinely, journalists describe the cynicism and lack of trust that people have in their institutions. Congress, the press, the president and even colleges are no longer reflexively approved by large majorities.

Institutions lose their credibility when they are seen as behaving by expedience rather than principle.

Not long ago, colleges assumed a public voice on matters of importance and conscience like apartheid, civil rights and social justice. More examples could be cited, but suffice it to say that colleges will fail to hold the nation’s respect if the rationale for actions are not rooted in the best principles of the academic tradition.

I will be the first to acknowledge that a significant value of college is growing emotionally as well as intellectually. That means a certain amount of experimentation will take place.

Bad decisions are part of the maturation process. So is learning from both good and bad decisions.

The successful college will recognize that it plays a significant role in highlighting the values that create a worthy and enduring experience. The successful college creates an environment that is not harmful — nor is it a nanny.

The successful college recognizes that every public action delivers a statement to students and to the community. And successful colleges do not facilitate poor decision-making by students.

So should TCU or any college serve beer openly at football games? I don’t know. But the decision is not without high stakes and should be more than the simple rationale of making a lot of money or “everybody is doing it.”

Don Mills is distinguished professor of higher education leadership at Texas Christian University. The opinions are his own and do not reflect any official TCU position.

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