The Michigan football program has been in the spotlight recently for a variety of issues — what hasn’t received attention, however, is the culture that surrounds it. But it needs to be. On any given football Saturday, groups of students tailgate or pregame the football games — regardless of whether or not they actually attend. If you’ve walked down Hill Street or South University Avenue on one of these mornings, you’ve probably seen huge pre-parties: the masses of students dancing on tables and lawns with red cups, walking from house to house in huddled masses.
You’ve heard the cheers, the laughter. But you’ve also probably heard police and ambulance sirens and seen students in handcuffs or strapped to a gurney. This isn’t a University-specific problem, but the inextricable link between tailgating culture and what happens on campus some Saturdays is a problem that affects many students. To make matters worse, current policies fail to adequately address the problem.
Alcohol use among college students is well studied and well documented. According to the recently published National College Health Assessment, 70 percent of University undergraduate students sampled self-reported to have consumed alcohol in the past 30 days. Asking students to self-report a potentially illegal behavior, even anonymously, isn’t an infallible practice. But even taking the numbers at face value, it’s clear that a hell of a lot more students are drinking than are legally permitted to do so.
Certainly not everyone drinks at the University, and campus data from the NCHA actually suggests that many Undergraduate students overestimate the amount that others are drinking. However, the prevailing culture at the University, especially on football Saturdays, places an inordinately high value on alcohol to fuel partying. Freedom from parents, easy access and permissive attitudes toward its overconsumption tend to reinforce this culture.
To most students reading this, what I’ve said so far is probably old news. But, the University, the state and national policies that govern alcohol consumption for underage students often blatantly ignore the realities of college life that are clear to the majority of students. On paper, the policies strictly forbid underage drinking. But, because they so clearly conflict with prevalently accepted norms, underage drinking laws are all but impossible to evenly enforce on college campuses. As a result, the enacted policies accomplish only a small fraction of what they were intended to while simultaneously causing a lot of harm.
For example, at the game against Michigan State last weekend, Lansing Police arrested 101 individuals, mainly for “underage drinking and disorderly conduct,” according to the Lansing State Journal. For anyone who attended the game or saw pictures of the tailgates on social media, this number seems remarkably low, but for the relatively few students who were ticketed for drinking underage, that citation could have a lasting impact.
Further, having a law or school policy that so clearly contradicts accepted culture harms the law itself. Instead of instilling respect for the law, policies like this condition an irreverent, it only matters if I get caught attitude. Because the success of any law itself depends to an extent on the willingness of the public to submit to the constraints it imposes, it’s important that students enter society as people who understand the importance and value of justice and civil order. Instead, many students fear law enforcement personnel and treat laws with the same subjectivity that they approach things like political gestures.
Because that’s what they’ve become. Save for medical amnesty, the policies surrounding underage drinking are colored by the political pressure to maintain a tough stance against dangerous adolescent behaviors.
But underage drinking isn’t what causes the most harm — binge drinking is. Maintaining strict laws against drunk driving (perhaps even the zero tolerance law for those under 21) while also adopting more relaxed policies for low BACs of college-aged students may help address this in a more manageable and equitable way. It could, in the process, decrease binge drinking by legitimizing responsible drinking.
Victoria Noble can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.