Senior Writer

Luck's West Virginia proposal for beer sales sparks debate


Oliver Luck wants you to drink beer. More to the point, he wants you to drink his beer, on his campus, in his stadium, on his terms. That means -- if everything goes right -- there's a good chance the West Virginia fans who partake actually will be less inebriated.

"It's a little bit counterintuitive," admitted the Mountaineers AD.

Yeah, just a little. College campuses can be seething cauldrons of underage drinkers. Sneaking in a flask has been a college tradition dating back decades. Binge drinking has long been a problem. A tragic headline seemed to sum up the climate last year. Notre Dame lost prized recruit Matt James, who police said was "drunk and belligerent" before falling to his death from a hotel balcony.

Oliver Luck likens selling beer to curb binge drinking to using fire to battle brush blazes. (Getty Images)  
Oliver Luck likens selling beer to curb binge drinking to using fire to battle brush blazes. (Getty Images)  
Luck is aware of it all. He still wants to add beer sales at athletic events as 1) an obvious revenue producer; and 2) to help control what has become the uncontrollable at times at West Virginia football games. Without getting into couch-burning stereotypes, there is a lot of partying at Mountaineers games. Perhaps too much.

"Right at the end of the second quarter, you'll see 15,000 people head to the exits," Luck said. "They'll head out to their tailgate. They'll come back at the beginning of the third quarter. ... We've looked at a number of different ways to try to figure out how to upgrade the civility. This thing, it was getting raunchy."

Former Mountaineers linebacker John Spraggins agrees. He played under Bobby Bowden in the 1970s when the team was made to attend church each Sunday. Spraggins has been a first-hand witness to what he calls a "deterioration" of decorum in the stands.

"It's not about the guys playing on the field," he said. "It's a beerfest, a drinkfest."

Luck's idea remains a bit of social engineering that has caught the attention of everyone from school and conference officials to substance-abuse experts. Luck wants to eliminate the pass-out policy whereby fans exiting the stadium can re-enter, with a pass, after halftime. That allows them to, in some cases, speed to their tailgates and speed drink before the second half.

By putting beer taps in Milan Puskar Stadium, Luck believes he can at least slow the alcohol abuse. Theoretically, fans will be less motivated to sneak in those flasks. They will have to produce an ID. Sales will be limited to cups/bottles per person as is the case at most professional events. Plus, as is the case in many stadiums, those taps will be shut down before the game is concluded.

"Prohibition didn't work," Luck said. "It was a failed experiment in American public policy. I believe the proper approach to alcohol is to teach kids to respect it because it's a powerful drug. But you can't ban it."

That's where Spraggins disagrees. The former linebacker is in his 14th year as a substance-abuse counselor for West Virginia students.

"They'll [students] just have somebody older than them buy it for them," Spraggins said. "They'll sneak it in so they don't have to go outside. Why do we have to have alcohol at a college event? We've got moms, dads, little kids. So you add alcohol to that?"

That's what makes Luck's proposal unique. He wants to add alcohol to a campus setting in a sport where the handful of schools that do offer it to fans have been doing it for years. A survey of Division I-A conferences showed that alcohol is sold to fans in the stands in approximately 20 stadiums. Most of those stadiums are pro venues and/or owned by a city.

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According to a two-year old Louisiana-Lafayette study, alcohol is available -- whether in suite/lounge areas or by purchase in the stands -- in at least 55 stadiums in I-A. That's almost half of the division. However, there is a wide range in that list -- from NFL venues like Raymond James Stadium (where South Florida plays) to Western Kentucky, where alcohol is sold only in an 800-person club lounge area.

Six of those venues are in West Virginia's conference, the Big East. According to the league, only Rutgers and West Virginia don't sell alcohol to fans in the stands. The AD of one of those Big East schools, Louisville's Tom Jurich, makes no apologies. Corporate partners Miller and Anheuser-Busch have been big contributors to Louisville coffers.

"We built our stadium with private dollars," Jurich said. "Anheuser-Busch was a huge contributor. They've been a great partner. The experience that I've had I don't think it [in-stadium sales] encourages binge drinking. It's been more of a deterrent."

Mike Cleary, the executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, has intimate knowledge of Luck, if not his proposal. The AD went to high school with Cleary's children.

"It'll be news when BYU does [sell alcohol]," Cleary said. "Other than that, in this day and age, I don't think it's a big deal."

Spraggins and Luck can agree that things have gotten out of hand at West Virginia. Then-Miami linebackers coach Randy Shannon was struck by a trash can thrown from the stands in 1996. The state eventually paid Shannon $50,000 to settle a lawsuit.

"People say things publicly that they didn't say 20 or 30 years ago," Luck said. "They'll say four-letter words screaming at a ref or a coach. That's just society. We think some of that is fueled by binge drinking. If this policy is approved, it would help us cut down on that binge drinking, therefore allowing for more of a civil atmosphere.

"We don't have control right now," added Luck, the father of Heisman runner-up Andrew Luck at Stanford. "We're bringing a measure of control into the stadium that we ultimately think will help improve the atmosphere and, quite honestly, generate a few dollars. I'm not denying that."

The difference is Luck is trying to add alcohol in a climate that has produced critics, even at West Virginia, that are skeptical, if not outraged. A 30-day comment period for proposal ended Friday. One report said two-thirds of persons who filed public comments regarding the proposal were against it. The school's board of governors will address the issue June 3.

A sampling:

"This policy simply defies logic: There is already a serious problem with alcohol abuse at games and WVU fans regarded as among the worst in the nation. Due to complete lack of enforcement inside the stadium, last season a drunken young fan vomited all over the shoes of people near me ..." -- Roger A. Lohmann, Morgantown, W.V.

Fan Poll

Where do you stand on West Virginia's beer plan?

Great idea: Let the beer flow
Awful idea: More alcohol won't help

Total Votes: 5,246

"Knowing that beer can be purchased in the stadium will have the tendency to reduce binging outside the stadium ..." --Mark Dean, 2008 graduate.

"We have this reputation in terms of being a party school anyway and [then] add alcohol too it?" Spraggins said. "That's undermining everything we're trying to do."

You would think that Adam Chafetz would agree. His father Morris pioneered substance-abuse studies in the 1950s. Today, Adam is CEO of Arlington, Va.-based TIPS (Training for Intervention Procedures), a company that trains for responsible service, sale and consumption of alcohol. When told about Luck's proposal, he was intrigued.

"Oftentimes we've driven kids to drink underground," Chafetz said. "What happens is we've gotten so aggressive at enforcement, they drink it so quickly, they get drunk real quick and [sometimes] die from alcoholic poisoning. I can kind of understand where the AD is coming from. If they are in the stadium drinking, you have a much better chance of controlling it. He might have a point there."

Oliver Luck wants you to drink his beer in his stadium on his terms but not without making one more whimsical closing argument.

"It's like the firefighters when they battle fires out West, what do they do to contain them?" he asked. "They set fires."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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