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Frank's Place: While colleges battle binge-drinking, alcohol flows at sporting events

Since America's response to its grotesque gun violence is more guns, it's hardly surprising that in the face of a campus binge-drinking epidemic, more colleges have decided to sell alcohol at sporting events.

Since America's response to its grotesque gun violence is more guns, it's hardly surprising that in the face of a campus binge-drinking epidemic, more colleges have decided to sell alcohol at sporting events.

Having already ceded authority over their athletic programs to boosters, shoe companies, and TV networks, university presidents have more recently been busy surrendering to powerful brewers.

"One of the main issues confronting universities is alcohol abuse," West Virginia University president Gordon Gee said earlier this year.

Before you praise Gee for any moral insight, remember that his comment was merely an acknowledgment of another lost cause.

It came only after West Virginia began offering beer, wine, and hard cider at football games and only after the alcohol-poisoning death there of an 18-year-old fraternity pledge whose blood-alcohol reading was six times higher than the state's legal limit.

Don't blame poor West Virginia. Like Texas, Maryland, Minnesota, Syracuse, Ohio State, and all those other schools that in the last few years have lifted bans on alcohol sales at sporting events, it claimed it did so for financial reasons.

After all, how else could a college ranked 175th in academics by U.S. News & World Report possibly pay its men's football and basketball coaches a combined $6 million annually?

Not that it's any great revelation, but in college sports hypocrisy is as prevalent as budget deficits.

As Gee's comments suggested, administrators are well aware of the negative impact binge-drinking is having on their campuses. Yet in 2015 alcohol and sports are welded together more tightly than ever at the nation's colleges.

"Alcohol is the oxygen of college sports," said Murray Sperber, a Cal-Berkeley professor and a widely recognized authority on the excesses of collegiate athletics. "The system could not breathe without the money from beer ads on the broadcasts of games. And the NCAA and the colleges embrace the money even though binge-drinking is at epidemic proportions on many campuses."

According to a recent study by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol kills 1,825 college students annually. College drinkers also physically assault 690,000 fellow students and date-rape another 97,000.

And, as with the problem of gun violence, the response has been counterintuitive - increased availability of alcohol.

If the excess consumption of some food item were linked to nearly 2,000 deaths a year, how long would it remain on a college cafeteria's menu?

You don't have to be an ethics professor to recognize the moral failings of schools that, in the face of those staggering statistics, condone changes that make it even easier for students - especially underage students - to drink.

Ohio State, which traditionally has the nation's largest athletic budget as well as some of its best teams, is in many ways the bell cow for college sports. Its recent decision to permit alcohol sales at football, basketball, and hockey games figures to trigger a stampede.

What makes Ohio State's decision even more curious is that not too long ago the school was so concerned about alcohol-fueled postgame uprisings that it created a Task Force on Celebratory Riots.

Apparently, one of the task force's recommendations was more alcohol.

It's not as if the alcohol ban was a burden for football fans at Ohio State, which because of largely drinking-related problems is forced to spend well over $1 million annually on home-game security.

"If they have to cut off a leg and hollow it out to get the alcohol in," former Ohio State Police Chief Ron Michalec once told me, "they will do it."

I drink. I understand alcohol's appeal as a social lubricant. If not for the few beers I consumed on the night we met, I'd never have summoned the courage to approach the girl who became my wife.

And on Friday nights at college, my freshman friends and I always retreated to rural Wisconsin bars where the legal drinking age was then 18. The folly of that habit didn't become clear until I awoke one morning in the backseat of a '53 Buick with a windshield that had been pockmarked during the night by a stray shotgun blast.

College kids are going to drink. But neither they nor the university are best-served by policies that provide a tacit endorsement of behavior that so often is antisocial and dangerous.

Not all schools have acquiesced. And most universities now provide mandatory alcohol-education programs for students.

The trouble is they're not working.

Between 1997 and 2001, for example, the NCAA found that the percentage of schools with alcohol-education programs increased from 38 percent to 60 percent. Yet in that same span, the number of Division I athletes who drank registered a barely perceptible decline, from 79.2 percent to 78.3 percent.

And that's just the athletes. Binge-drinking may be even more deeply rooted among the fans of college sports, who can be counted on once or twice a school year to erupt in violence after meaningful victories or defeats.

"Whether you win or lose, you're encouraged to drink," said Henry Wechsler, a Harvard professor who has long studied college drinking patterns. "You celebrate by downing a few if you win, and you cry in your beer if you lose."

Those tears would be better directed elsewhere.

In 1998, a Kentucky football player, Arthur Steinmetz, died in a drunken-driving crash. The university responded with a number of steps, including a threat that athletes convicted of alcohol-related offenses would lose their scholarships.

When the drinking continued, it was the punishments and not the scholarships that were rescinded.

"There were many schools, even in our own conference, who were more than willing to take those kids in," one Kentucky official said. "So we changed the policy to a one-year suspension."