Not even an athletics school at all, really. This simple point was driven home to me when many houses, including my own Quincy, scheduled events at the same time as the season-opening football game.
But I was wholly unprepared for this.
When it was announced last week that all alcohol would be banned at student tailgates on Ohiri Field for “The Game,” Harvard’s single greatest sporting event, I was stunned. It’s traditionally Harvard’s lone day in the athletic sun, with Sportscenter coverage, a national broadcast, and enough of a crowd to give last year’s clash the fifth-highest single-game attendance in all of Division I-AA football, higher than 456 Division I-A games.
But the 2006 edition will be subject to restrictions unheard of in previous years, even after what was often called an overly restrictive policy at Yale last year that merely banned drinking games and limited the length of the festivities.
The new policy has its obvious health-related flaws, which have been well-chronicled in these pages. Students, opponents say, will drink in the houses, binge drink, or avoid seeking help for dangerously intoxicated friends for fear of punishment. Yale’s tougher policy led to a significant drop in alcohol hospitalizations last year.
Meanwhile, the Undergraduate Council has temporarily put aside its trivial squabbles and united around something that students actually care about, and for that they should be lauded.
But this is a sports column, and there’s no need to rehash what’s already been said on those issues. Instead, the administration also needs to understand what impact these rules could have on The Game itself.
From a sports perspective, I fear that The Game is going to lose the atmosphere that makes it so great.
At any institution that values its athletic tradition, the events surrounding the game are at least as important as the contest itself. Just ask fans in The Grove at Ole Miss, The Cage at Virginia Tech, or anyone within 10 miles of Bryant-Denny stadium in Alabama, and the lesson is clear: the tailgate as a social event is critical.
What could possibly be better than people gathering together to celebrate how Harvard is clearly far superior to Yale?
But the inevitable consequence of banning drinks, and the resulting drinking in houses, is that fewer students from both schools will want to make the trip across the Charles to see the actual game.
After all, Yale had to shut down the tailgates after halftime last year just to get people into the stadium from the adjoining parking lots. Imagine what will happen when the alcohol (which, realistically, fuels much of the tailgate) is pushed back into the houses. I remember reaching my seat just before kickoff last year to see that roughly 30 Harvard students had actually filled their seats; the Yale side looked much the same.
The fact that the oldest rivalry in college football isn’t enough to draw students away from the booze in the parking lot should be a clear indication that banning it entirely will only reduce student attendance at The Game itself.
This is an event that drew a paid attendance of 53,213 last year, a significant number of them students, and which stands to lose much of its most vocal cheering section if these rules remain in order. Why bother traveling across the river when there’s plenty to consume, and lots of socializing, back in the houses?
Of course, this touches on the other strength of the tailgate—as a social event.
For students from both universities, the tailgate is about visiting with friends on both sides of the rivalry, and, if there’s time, taking in The Game. This function is doubly critical at institutions like Harvard, where students are not necessarily there for the football as much as the fraternizing.
Granted, there’s no need for the 50 hospitalizations that occurred in 2004, and the college is right to try to find solutions to that problem. But dispersing student drinking and reducing attendance at Harvard’s greatest social event (sorry, Leverett 80s dance) and sporting contest is not the answer.
Maybe the college wants to experiment with Yale-style rules. For all the complaints last year, they were effective. Hospitalizations dropped by 40 percent from the year before, and when students poured in at the beginning of the second half it brought new energy to the stadium and to a historic rendition of The Game.
If anything, those rules could be argued to have improved the football atmosphere by forcing students into the stadium at the most critical juncture of the contest.
But for now, it appears that a more draconian plan is in the works.
How many students will fill the seats as a result?
—Staff writer Brad Hinshelwood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org