SB Nation

Richard Brodsky | January 22, 2013

Sports' culture of intoxication

“If they’d eat a blasted steak or drink a blasted beer once in a while, maybe their muscles wouldn’t keep ripping off their rib cages. Grover Cleveland Alexander never pulled rib muscles. Paul Waner never did and neither did Babe Ruth. Babe lived on hot dogs and beer. Sometimes that might be good for you.”

-- Whitey Herzog

“Enkidu, a shaggy, unkempt, almost bestial primitive man, who ate grass and could milk wild animals, wanted to test his strength against Gilgamesh, the demigod-like sovereign. Taking no chances, Gilgamesh sent a prostitute to Enkidu to learn of his strengths and weaknesses. Enkidu knew not what bread was nor how one ate it. He had also not learned to drink beer. The prostitute opened her mouth and spoke to Enkidu: ‘Eat the bread now, O Enkidu, as it belongs to life. Drink also beer, as it is the custom of the land.’ Enkidu drank seven cups of beer and his heart soared. In this condition he washed himself and became a human being.”

-- The Epic of Gilgamesh

Tailgating at Giants Stadium: The noise, the music, the costumes, the smell of roasting meat, and ... a nice Beaujolais, or perhaps a white wine spritzer?

Top of the sixth at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, score tied, hot July day, screaming fans, and ... a Diet Pepsi?

I don’t think so. There is a natural, accepted and universal link between American beer and sports. There’s history here, and tradition, and money, and a certain pathology. Some of it is fun and easy to accept. Some of it is dark and dangerous. But the link between beer and sports tells us a lot about the culture and business of American sports, and about ourselves. Look deep enough into your glass and you’ll see things, some charming and funny, and some a bit frightening.

In fairness, beer ought to be appreciated for its intrinsic worth: its colors, from light piercing the pale yellow of a lager to the clear blackness of a stout; its textures, from airy foam to splashes of ale to the syrupy thickness of a Guinness; and its tastes, of grain and bitterness and salt and the sting of alcohol.

There’s a reason it’s been around for 7,000 years and in almost every culture across the globe.

There is a natural, accepted and universal link between American beer and sports.

Beer probably started as a way to productively use old bread, and soon gained religious and cultural significance. Chang is a Tibetan beer and Chicha is a corn beer and kumis is a drink produced from fermented camel milk. The great Nordic epic, the Edda, reserved wine for the gods; mortals had to make do with beer. By the 16th century Europeans had settled on the great trinity of contemporary beer making, wheat, barley, and hops. America took beer to its high point, cold brewing to keep it clear, and by 1880 there were 2,500 breweries across the nation.

The connection to sports came at about the same time. Around 1880 Chris Von der Ahe, a St. Louis saloon owner, figured out that sales jumped when the Browns were playing. So he bought a piece of the team and started selling his product. He became the Bill Veeck/Al Davis of his time, putting a horse racing track inside the park, had a messy divorce, and saw his park, the old Sportsman’s Field, burn down. By age 61 he was dead of cirrhosis of the liver. Other beer barons followed, from the Yankees’ Jacob Ruppert to the Busch family in St. Louis who brought us Spuds MacKenzie and mass marketing, to Labatt in Ontario, the Coors in Colorado, and more.

What's made it a problem is the decades of its rampant abuse at venues and sports bars alike. binge drinking

The affinity of sports fans for beer is not hard to figure, as a matter of history or human pleasure. What’s made it a problem is the decades of its rampant abuse at venues and sports bars alike, aided and abetted by the sanctioned marketing and selling of a lucrative commodity.

The alcohol in beer, of course, is an intoxicant, a drug in the same sense that marijuana and cocaine are drugs. Its victims are innumerable from the derelict homeless alcoholic to bingeing college kids, to athletes like John Daly, Theo Fleury, Dwight Gooden or Josh Hamilton. Its victims are non-drinkers forced to sit through vomiting and obscenities at public arenas, or worse, to be victimized by soccer riots and drunk drivers. And these days there’s a much greater awareness of the societal costs of alcohol than in the days of Dean Martin, when we treated drunks and drinking as fodder for comedians.

A USA Today survey of the 119 schools in the NCAA’s major football-playing FBS found that nearly half (54) allow the sale of alcohol. Eighty-five of those schools have designated tailgating areas, and barely one in 10 keeps those zones alcohol-free. Researchers for Virginia Tech’s College Alcohol Abuse Prevention Center, armed with handheld breathalyzers, fanned out before four Tech football games and found that 86 percent of 275 tested tailgaters had consumed alcohol. About 46 percent had blood-alcohol levels of 0.08 or higher, the state’s legal standard for intoxication. Among the pregame tailgaters who intended to drive after the game, a third were legally intoxicated. This isn’t just sipping a cold one, by the way. A 2008 Department of Justice study found that about 90 percent of alcohol consumption by those under the age of 21 occurred during binge drinking. About 1,700 college students died in 2011 from excessive drinking.

I am no prohibitionist, by any stretch of the imagination. Have a beer, relax, enjoy the game. But, Super Bowl advertising aside, the sands are shifting, and rightly so. Nineteen major-league teams (including the three most visibly connected to beer, the Cardinals, the Brewers and the Rockies) ban beer from their locker rooms. The NBA’s Lakers, Clippers and Kings, and the NHL’s Ducks, do the same. USC cut off alcohol sales. Miami (Fla.) ended a sponsorship arrangement with Coors. Florida, Ohio State and Kentucky no longer allow alcohol advertising on any TV and radio broadcasts they control. Where colleges don’t act, cops do. In 2012 Indiana’s Excise Police targeted tailgaters at Ball State, Indiana State, Notre Dame, Purdue, Butler and Indiana universities. The goal: to “essentially change behavior,” said police spokesmen. “You were seeing kids that are belligerent drunk, falling down, can’t care for themselves. So it’s not kids having one or two beers.”

Over time even professional teams are trying to figure out what to do. As Bob Whitsitt, former president of the Seattle SuperSonics, put it: “We would be seriously hurt without beer companies as sponsors. It is a sensitive issue because you need the money, but you don’t want to be seen as promoting the idea that people come to our games, get drunk and drive home. We do make sure that our players are out in the community talking about the dangers of alcohol and drugs. That helps.”

Some players are speaking out: The legendary Bubba Smith quit doing beer commercials: “I didn’t like the effect I was having on a lot of little people. People in school. When kids start to listen to what you say, you want to tell ‘em something that’s the truth. ... Doing those commercials, it’s like me telling everyone in school, Hey, it’s cool to have a Lite beer. ... As the years wear on, you got to stop compromising your principles.” (“That Little Voice Just Kept Chanting: “Stop, Bubba, Stop,” L.A. Times, Scott Osler, Sept. 9, 1986). He knew whereof he spoke. Between the ages of two and 18, American children see something like 100,000 television commercials for beer.

binge drinkingThe jury found that there was a “culture of intoxication” at Giant's Stadium.

There are growing legal problems for clubs and arenas that sell alcohol. Most states have “dram shop” laws, which hold the seller responsible for the consequences of drinking, particularly drunk driving. Numerous sports related suits have been brought, with big-buck settlements usually done in secret. There’s the occasional public viewing as happened in New Jersey seven years ago when a jury awarded a young girl millions for the permanent injuries she suffered at the hands of a driver who had gotten drunk at a Giants game. The jury found that there was a “culture of intoxication” at Giants Stadium. The verdict was overturned on appeal, but it sent shivers down the spine of the NFL, its clubs and its stadia. There are more in the pipeline, and of all the pressures on sports to do some damn thing about excessive drinking, dram shop laws are likely to be the most effective.

Don’t underestimate the political power of the beer/sports barons to resist reform. Any attempt by government to engage in these discussions will be a ferocious battle. I know, all too well.

My experience with the intersection of beer, sports and politics was, shall we say, instructive. In June of 1985 two things happened. First, I bought two box seat tickets for my pregnant wife and me for a Mets game at Shea (in the days when one could do that for less than $1,000). It was a mob scene. Obscenity, vomiting, threats and violence were rampant, as were the 32 ounce cups of beer being peddled incessantly, and at very, very high cost. The rent-a-cop just shrugged and walked away when a number of us asked for a little help. The drunks were emboldened and threatened us. We left. Second, a few days later, 39 people were killed and over 400 injured in the infamous Belgian Soccer Riot, an alcohol-fueled battle between drunken English and Italian fans, largely instigated and accomplished by the English. An international uproar ensued and alcohol was identified as one, if not the, culprit.

At the time I was a member of the New York State Assembly. It was and is a wonderful place from which to jump into all kinds of social and political battles. So I thought about remedies, Ban the stuff? Prohibition doesn’t work. Limit its sale? Maybe, but that would attract big-money opposition. Well, how about just letting me buy a seat away from the drunks? Simple and elegant, freedom of choice, not a nanny-state interference with the tradition of beer and sports.

Over that summer we drafted a bill. I’m a Democrat and the Senate was run by Republicans, so I went to Republican Sen. John Dunne of Nassau. Sen. Dunne was senior, powerful, smart and effective. He had seen similar stuff to what I had experienced, and we announced the introduction of a bill to require every New York sports facility to sell seats in “alcohol-free” sections.

We were treated as if we had burned the American flag.

We were treated as if we had burned the American flag. The nation’s awareness of how sports and alcohol abuse intersected was just beginning, and public drunkenness was viewed as faintly amusing. Dean Martin made falling down drunk part of his popular TV show. MADD was young and small, the drinking age was 18, and binge-drinking and drunken riots were new. Organized sports and sports talk shows came at us on the grounds we were un-American, frumpy old ladies trying to kill what was left of a man’s world. The Yankees and the Mets were vociferously opposed, the Knicks, the Rangers and Bills less so. Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth opposed the bill. George Steinbrenner threatened to sue me (in fairness to George I had said that the Yankees were “dealing drugs,” albeit a legal one, and we got into a back-and-forth that yielded a threat to “see me in court.”) My staff was hopeful that he would, but cooler heads prevailed, unfortunately. High-powered lobbyists were hired, who first began civil conversations in Albany about the problem, but then pulled some national Republican strings and stalked out of a public meeting, saying the bill was dead in the Senate.

They underestimated Sen. Dunne, who strolled over to the Assembly Chamber and told me privately that he would get it through the Senate, if I got it through the Assembly. We mounted a real PR campaign. I attacked the teams, “We are not going to be bullied. They have mounted an intense and bitter lobbying campaign. Baseball has some vested interests in beer.” I did television and WFAN’s Mike and the Mad Dog, MADD and others joined up, and the bill got traction with real people and real families who were revolted by what they were seeing at ballparks. We amended the bill to reduce the number of seats, (6 percent of seats to be alcohol-free, another 15 percent vendor free but allowing beer consumption, only 2 percent of the seats alcohol free if the stadium banned vending in the stands), began to push Gov. Mario Cuomo to support it, and got it through the Assembly. Sen. Dunne was as good as his word and the Senate approved it and Gov. Cuomo signed it.

binge drinkingIf beer is going to be preserved as part of the sports experience, more needs to be done.

Because we pulled back in order to get it passed, it was infinitely more powerful as a symbol of public disgust than in creating true safe havens. But its impact was national. Clubs and arenas across the country started to limit the time, number, and size of beer sales, in-stand security was increased, and a more family-friendly atmosphere emerged. I was actually told by a sports official, years later, that our efforts were a blessing and enabled the beer companies and teams to mend their ways before real bans were enacted.

Whatever the bill’s practical results, the effort demonstrated the formidable economic, political and cultural bonds between beer and sports. Years later it seems obvious that beer and public drunkenness need to be at least controlled. There is a legitimate place for beer at a sporting event. But the powerful economic interest in selling as much as you can and real timidity by college and municipal leaders gives us periodic upsurges of violence and antisocial behavior that we see again today. It remains possible to have a beer as part of what we enjoy about sports. But it’s impossible not to see the dangers as well. If beer is going to be preserved as part of the sports experience, more needs to be done.

On Dec. 9, 2012, the New York Times ran two relevant stories. The first was a generally laudatory piece on the Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, who was just voted into the Hall of Fame by the Old-Timers Committee. Ruppert was notable for a gentle disposition, and buying the Yankees for $480,000. In January of 1920 he maneuvered Red Sox owner Harry Frazee into the fabled sale of Babe Ruth, so that Frazee could produce a Broadway show, thus creating the “curse” that lasted 86 years. And, more significantly, he owned a major brewery and helped perfect the marketing of beer and baseball as a natural, fun combination. The second relevant story in the Dec. 9 Times described the arrest of Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Josh Brent on a charge of intoxication manslaughter, the legal consequence of an auto accident that killed his teammate, linebacker Jerry Brown.

Ruppert may indeed belong in the Hall of Fame, and Brent will be tried for drunk driving. But I was struck by the unspoken, ghostlike connection between the two men that we should admit, and examine, and ponder on.

It would be wrong to make too much of such an awful tragedy, or to use it alone as proof of an unsavory and dangerous relationship between beer and baseball. Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe there will be another wave of legislative interest and reform. But, my feeling as a fan and former legislator is that we need to do an intervention.

About the Author

Richard Brodsky is a former 14-term New York State Assemblyman from Westchester and Senior Fellow at Demos.

In the NYS Assembly Richard Chaired the Committee on Environmental Conservation creating NY's Environmental Protection Fund which has disbursed billions to preserve and restore the environment statewide. He successfully challenged Indian Point Nuclear Plant on a range of issues including polluting the Hudson River, faulty evacuation planning, and hazardous radioactive leaks.

Richard attended Brandeis University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Politics, and played basketball and lacrosse, and Harvard Law School where he received his J.D.