At Wisconsin, past alcohol violators' stadium access hinges on passing a Breathalyzer test.
It seemed reasonable enough. Students who vomit, fall down or otherwise draw attention to themselves inside Camp Randall Stadium as a result of excessive alcohol consumption forfeit the privilege of attending future University of Wisconsin football games.
That was nearly the policy that the UW Dean of Students Office put in place years ago to help curb the binge drinking and rowdy behavior that have become synonymous with Badger Saturdays in Madison. "A game ticket is a license that can be revoked, and our initial idea was to just revoke the season tickets of those students who get kicked out," says assistant dean of students Ervin Cox. "Then we thought, 'Let's not do that. Let's give them the chance to still come, but they have to come sober.' "
Proof of sobriety comes via a Breathalyzer test administered to prior offenders outside the stadium turnstiles on game day. Of-age students are allowed access only after registering a blood alcohol content of less than 0.08, the legal limit for driving in Wisconsin. Underage students with any trace of alcohol in their systems are denied and turned over to law enforcement officials. Says Cox, who pilot-tested the process on a handful of past offenders, "I can remember one woman, a senior, came by my office the week after a game and said, 'That was the first game I ever attended sober, and it was the most fun.' Other students would stop at the police center after a game and say, 'I just wanted to let you know, it wasn't that big a deal coming without alcohol.' Our hope is that over time this will send a cultural message."
The unsolicited feedback "surprised the heck out of me," admits Cox, who began to get the sense that his department was on to something. Hence, the launch Sept. 22 of "Show & Blow," an expanded breath-test initiative targeting all students with prior stadium-related alcohol violations. "When you're getting that kind of feedback, you know that the students who are participating are getting something out of it," Cox adds. "We're getting the feeling that some of the students who have gone through Show & Blow are actually relieved to have an excuse - 'I can't drink because I can't get in trouble.' They're almost glad they don't have to go along with the peer culture and drink a lot before the game."
The culture of intoxication surrounding UW football is well established. Saturday morning house parties spill into the streets surrounding Camp Randall Stadium, and nearby bar owners fence off their parking lots to form makeshift beer gardens. Rare is the list of "party schools" that doesn't mention Wisconsin among the top 10, and the Madison campus is one of only half a dozen on which a weekly newspaper called The Booze News is circulated.
UW students cited for alcohol violations at any game are added to the Show & Blow list, which by the program's third game had grown to include 86 names. The week prior to each successive home game, affected students receive an e-mail stating that if they plan to attend Saturday's game, they should abstain from drinking the night before and report to the Show & Blow booth 45 minutes prior to kickoff. Of-age e-mail recipients are even directed to online BAC calculators to assist them in gauging their intake.
Some students remain skeptical of the program's worth. Kyle Szarzynski, a columnist for the Badger Herald student newspaper, recently blogged, "I, for one, have not encountered a single student who approves of Show & Blow, and this is not necessarily because I hang out with a pro-alcohol crowd." The editorial board at the rival Daily Cardinal asked, "If the threat of a citation and a hefty fine are not enough to deter students from acting belligerently at games, how much more deterrence will this new policy add?"
"Many students feel that we're being too intrusive," says UW associate dean of students Kevin Helmkamp. "We look at it more as giving students a second chance."
"We're not trying to discourage pregame partying," Cox insists. "We're trying to discourage excessive amounts of alcohol consumption. People, if they're of age, should still be able to have a couple beers before the game. The problem is that the one-third that's not in the student section at kickoff is still drinking." Once they arrive on the scene, excessively drunk students often create one. "There is a lot of lowbrow, classless, disgusting behavior that goes on," Cox says. "It's a small minority that does it, but it's a very visible minority."
Because the program employs the honor system, there is no way of knowing how many prior offenders head straight through the turnstiles without stopping first at the Show & Blow booth. "Somebody could walk right past us," Helmkamp admits. "But the student who does not stop for Show & Blow and then shows up in a police report faces much more serious consequences - up to suspension from the university."
Two games into the program, not a single individual among the 14 underage and eight of-age students who elected to show failed the test. Cox was on hand for the program's official rollout, a 7 p.m. game against the University of Iowa. "One of the of-age people at the Iowa game blew a 0.03, and I asked him, 'How much did you have?' He said, 'I had two beers within the last half-hour, with a bratwurst,' " Cox recalls. "Okay, that's good. That's what we want to see. We don't want to see the 0.25s or the 0.28s. We were seeing some highly dangerous levels of alcohol use."
In many ways, Show & Blow mirrors the UW athletic department's four-year old "Rolling Out the Red Carpet" campaign, which last year spawned a ticket-revocation policy as a disincentive for drunken behavior among the general public. Senior associate athletics director Vince Sweeney views the efforts of the dean of students office as compatible with those in his department. "We have shared concerns," Sweeney says. "They felt strongly that this was a good step to take, and in my mind it fits very closely with our overall campaign to do all that we can to effect positive changes in fan behavior."
Nationwide buzz in the form of sports blogs and Associated Press reports has led other athletic departments to take notice of the UW's Breathalyzer initiative. "We've not discussed the idea here, but we'll certainly monitor how it works there," University of Minnesota associate athletics director Tom Wistrcill told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in September. "It's a heck of a deterrent."
Others are lauding the university for at least attempting to tackle the problem of binge drinking among students. According to a statement on totaldui.com, a nationwide network of DUI attorneys, "The University of Wisconsin, as a premier Division I football school, is taking any and all incidents involving disorderly behavior and problem drinking seriously, and hopefully many major universities across the United States will follow Wisconsin's lead in trying to quell the growing problem of students drinking to excess."
The slate of 2007 offenders will be wiped clean when Show & Blow returns next fall for its first full season. In the meantime, the program may undergo some changes. "We're talking about how to expand it," Cox says. "To address the issue of students on the list giving their ticket vouchers to someone else, we're considering a measure that would require whoever has that voucher to blow."
Cox adds that the 2008 season could represent a tipping point for Show & Blow and its intended effect. "It's going to take a while for this to kick in culturally," he says. "It's going to take another season to really see if it makes an impact. We're hoping that over time students will realize that they don't want to be on that list."