SEC joins the alcohol party while weighing the potential moral costs involved
Commissioner Greg Sankey knows the importance of being careful with this decision
DESTIN, Fla. -- Amid the jokes about LSU's Tiger Stadium being (even more) tipsy on conference-sanctioned beer came a somber reminder Friday after the SEC decided to allow alcohol sales for the first time.
In announcing league presidents had removed the SEC's decades-old ban on alcohol at athletic events, commissioner Greg Sankey offered a personal note.
"My family understands why this is a serious issue," he said at the conclusion of the SEC spring meetings. "We all want to joke and laugh and write stories about alcohol but part of this care is, we have to be attentive to realities in society around us.
"Some of us experienced that which makes it a lot less flippant, a lot more serious."
Sankey did not elaborate, but his comments remind us that there is another side to this story. On Friday, the SEC became the last major conference to allow its members to sell alcohol (beer and wine) in its stadiums.
The ban had been in place at least since 1978.
"When you lead the nation in attendance, you have those circumstances," Sankey said. "You cherish that position and cherish those traditions and you proceed cautiously.
"We are a conference that is walking away from decades of prohibiting this activity and we want to proceed carefully."
The U2-loving Sankey has masterfully guided the league since taking over for Mike Slive since 2015. Revenue continues to climb as SEC football continues to be a Deep South religion.
The interest in SEC football comes with those alcohol-infused game day traditions. LSU game days are college football high holy days with one of the most rabid followings in the country -- and not just because of the football.
"Oh my gosh. I'm for it," LSU long snapper Blake Ferguson said. "They're [drinkers] getting it in the stadium anyway. They have areas in the stadium where you can drink. I think we should open it up. It's a great source of revenue. It would also cut down on students binge drinking.
Ferguson was a student-athlete representative at the SEC meetings, heading toward a master's in business. Even as a player, Ferguson experienced one of the most raucous game-day experiences in the country.
"I saw a girl with big cowboy boots pull a big bag of brown liquid out of her boot," Ferguson added. "[Allowing alcohol] might keep [students in the stadium] after halftime."
Looking ahead this week to alcohol sales, LSU coach Ed Orgeron said with a chuckle, "Louisiana is going to be Louisiana and I love it for it."
At least 55 schools nationally already serve alcohol. The SEC presidents had been discussing the move since 2010, according to Sankey. It took only a majority of the league's 14 presidents (eight) Friday to finally jump on the beer wagon.
The move comes at a time when social morals are changing even in a more conservative national climate. Nine states have some liberalized laws regarding marijuana use. The NCAA reduced its penalty for a positive marijuana drug test from a year to six months in 2014. Single-game sports betting has been legal since May 2018.
West Virginia is credited with starting the in-stadium alcohol trend in 2011. Then-AD Oliver Luck made the case that making beer and wine available would curb binge drinking throughout game day.
It had gotten so rowdy at Milan Puskar Stadium that security officials had a name when they were called for a clean up.
"All the schools that have done it, it has helped with [curbing] pregame activity," said Oliver, now the commissioner of the XFL. "The only negative I hear is somebody sometimes spills a beer."
The debate comes against the backdrop of the country's troubling alcoholism statistics:
- Thirty percent of auto accident fatalities are connected to alcohol consumption.
When the NCAA announced a pilot program to serve alcohol at the College World Series, the president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving told CBS Sports, "MADD discourages the service of alcohol at a college game-day event."
The NCAA announced last year it would allow alcohol sales at its championship events. Sankey said he was surprised the association had gone that far.
"But I think that also is an indication of a changing culture," he added.
The issue comes at a time of crossroads in the south of religion, morals and a shift in public opinion. Officially, SEC schools have the "autonomy" to serve alcohol starting Aug. 1. Auburn and Alabama immediately indicated Friday they would not serve it.
The growing reality this decade is that school's profit from the increased revenue. As Luck indicated, it is largely believed among college administrators that limiting intake (two drinks per visit) actually curbs binge-drinking.
Maybe Friday was inevitable in the SEC. That doesn't mean it's right for everyone.
"The fact that we're being careful, the fact that there are differences of opinion on this matter indicate there are appropriate concerns," Sankey said.
"One of the great questions becomes, what happens postgame?"
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