Fans take leave of senses when alcohol involved
Posted: Tuesday November 23, 2004 1:05PM; Updated: Tuesday November 23, 2004 1:05PM
By Mike McAllister, SI.com
Like the rest of us, George Hacker saw the highlights. Again and again and again. And like the rest of us, he tried to make sense of why it was happening -- specifically, why some Detroit fans seemed to relish a chance to throw a punch or a plastic cup at Ron Artest or one of his Pacers teammates.
"It's the beer talking," Hacker said. "Most people don't do that kind of stuff when they're sober. Who in their right mind wants to attack a big athlete? You've got to be nuts to do that.
"There's no question that alcohol was behind this."
And why should you listen to George Hacker? Because he's the Alcohol Policies Project Director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a non-profit group that promotes better policies on nutrition and alcohol. His group has seen too many examples of how the combination of alcohol and sports can produce uncontrolled situations, injuries ... even death.
Perhaps you'll recall Samantha Spady, the 19-year-old Colorado State freshman who died in early September from alcohol poisoning. Two days before her death, Spady had posted an Internet message discussing her plans to drink heavily at that weekend's Colorado-CSU football game. Police estimate she consumed 30-40 drinks in a 10-hour period surrounding the game.
Despite the suspensions, investigations and public relations disaster of Friday night's debacle, the one positive is that nobody died, either from alcohol poisoning or from an alcohol-fueled rage or accident.
We may never be certain just how much a part alcohol played in Friday's events. But few would argue that it wasn't a significant factor. Even NBA commissioner David Stern acknowledged that "it's an issue we are going to examine with respect to alcohol service."
Of course, it should have been examined before, and in all sports. Thirty years ago, the Indians hosted a weeknight game against the Texas Rangers during which the Cleveland crowd of 25,134 consumed more than 65,000 cups of beer that night -- thanks to the 10 cents a cup promotion. The crowd became unruly, then simply out of control, running onto the field and attacking players who feared for their lives. The Indians were forced to forfeit the game.
Evidently, there hasn't been much progress in 30 years.
To be fair, some teams have taken countermeasures, stopping beer sales before the game ends. In Miami, for instance, the Heat stop beer sales at the end of the third quarter, the Marlins stop sales in the 7th inning and the Panthers stop sales prior to the start of the third period. Many other pro teams have similar cut-off times.
Those measures were taken in large part to prevent fans from driving home drunk. Yet for some fans, that just encourages binge drinking, downing as much alcohol as possible prior to the cut-off deadline. Consequently, intoxicated fans are at their worst in the final minutes of a game -- and probably in their worst mood when the hometown team is losing to a heated rival, such as the case on Friday.
For his part, Hacker thinks teams should consider other potential solutions, such as:
Sell only beer with lower alcohol (3.2) content.
Sell smaller quantities of beer. Turn those 16-ounce cups into 10-ouncers.
Raise the price of beer sold at stadiums.
Not only cut off beer sales before the game ends, but limit the amount of time beer is sold BEFORE the game.
Increase vendor vigilance of heavy drinkers. To do so, Hacker suggests that every fan be required to wear a wristband that would indicate how many drinks the fan has bought. You could then place limits on the number of drinks purchased.
While those steps would likely slow down drinking at games, none will make the problem of unruly fan behavior disappear. And the biggest potential solution -- banning alcohol sales at games -- is simply not going to happen. Not with the alcohol industry spending more than $540 million on sports TV advertising, as it did in 2003. Not with the marriage of sports and alcohol (Coors Field? Miller Park?) so closely tied together.
There's no way to eliminate drinking at sports events. But perhaps there's a way to eliminate the drunk. It just depends on how big a priority Stern and his fellow commissioners want to make it.