“Responsible Tailgating” — an oxymoron?

January 15, 2014

Alison Epperson, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Health Ed.
Murray State University

In North America, tailgate has become nearly as important as the actual event. Extensive planning, preparation, food, attire, accessories, and location are key elements in enhancing the tailgater’s experience. The very nature of tailgating is a great example of culture “a shared set of attitudes, values and beliefs held by a group of people.”
However, as the popularity of tailgating has increased (and in particular, the alcohol consumption associated with it), so have some significant risk factors which can have detrimental effects on the participants as well as the property/ ownership of the event location.

It is not to say that other sports do not participate in tailgating, but by in large, the two sports most closely associated with large-scale pre and post event drinking (and sometimes even during) is football and NASCAR racing. Football however, touts elaborate tailgating on both the collegiate and professional level.
With reports estimating products and services related to tailgating accounting for revenue generation of approximately $12 billion, it’s not likely that this trend is going to decrease anytime soon. Furthermore, tailgating is not limited to just students supporting their home team. According to Katherine Dyson’s (2008) article ‘Turn Tailgating Into Fine Art’, the demographics of tailgaters may or may not surprise you:
– 60% have a college degree
– 40% spend more than $500 per season on supplies, 46% of which are purchased by husbands & wives together
– 47% tailgate six to 10 times per season
– 28% prolong the tailgate between five and six hours before the game;
Oftentimes, the battle lines are drawn between the home team (college or NFL) and their own fans. Many venues, in an effort to act in a risk management aspect will at least attempt to have some control over those consuming large amounts of alcohol over an extended period of time. Unfortunately, efforts to remain diligent and responsible are often met with resistance from alumni or long-time season ticket holders who are just trying to ‘uphold the tradition and school spirit’.

The question then becomes, who is responsible for whom/when, and should there be some limitations in place as far as the amount of time pre and post-game fans would be allowed to tailgate? Likewise, as tailgating develops into a mainstay of American culture, it has as a result become a learned behavior across generations. This has the potential to explode into an ongoing battle of risk management vs. school/team spirit as enthusiastic fans may be drawn to other events (sporting or non).

So why is this really a problem?

The phrase “Pre-gaming” is almost as widely used among college students as “Tweeting.” If you are not familiar with the term, pre-gaming is drinking prior to the actual event, much like the tailgate. This pre-event drinking (and it can be any event) is highly prevalent among under-age college students, for a variety of reasons. First of all and in most cases, they will not be able to purchase their own alcohol at the event, due to the fact that most sanctioned student organizational events require an ID policy in which those under 21 are stamped or must wear an arm band. Secondly, students will often justify this behavior so that they feel more comfortable/relaxed, or to be “at the same level” [of drunkenness] as their older peers.

As listed on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website (http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm):
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or above. This typically happens when men consume 5 or more drinks, and when women consume 4 or more drinks, in about 2 hours.

Furthermore, the following statistics in regards to binge drinking and associated behaviors are included on the same site;
– One in six U.S. adults binge drinks about four times a month, consuming about eight drinks per binge.
– While binge drinking is more common among young adults aged 18—34 years, binge drinkers aged 65 years and older report binge drinking more often–an average of five to six times a month.
– Binge drinking is more common among those with household incomes of $75,000 or more than among those with lower incomes.
– Approximately 92% of U.S. adults who drink excessively report binge drinking in the past 30 days.
– Although college students commonly binge drink, 70% of binge drinking episodes involve adults age 26 years and older.
– The prevalence of binge drinking among men is twice the prevalence among women.
– Binge drinkers are 14 times more likely to report alcohol-impaired driving than non-binge drinkers.
– About 90% of the alcohol consumed by youth under the age of 21 in the United States is in the form of binge drinks.
– More than half of the alcohol consumed by adults in the United States is in the form of binge drinks.

I don’t have any research based evidence, but I have grown up and currently work on a college campus where I advise a sorority. For the most part, in my personal observation, underage females don’t typically gravitate towards beer as their drink of choice. Again, in my personal observations, females like to start out with drinks with ‘flavor.’ Most often these drinks with ‘flavor’ are ‘hooch’ (which is normally a proof of 151 — the highest, purest form of alcohol), or mixed drinks which contain a number of different hard liquors. Take for example, the LIT (Long Island Iced Tea), which is comprised of the five “clears” — Rum, Tequila, Vodka, Gin, and Triple Sec.

The combination of these two interrelated trends (pre-gaming and binge drinking) sets the stage for the perfect storm. From a realistic standpoint, changing the culture of American traditions is not going to happen anytime soon, but from a risk management perspective, any opportunities for alcohol education should be identified.

This past June, Everfi (the parent company of Alcohol Edu) held their Annual Research Summit in which Kyle Pendleton from Zeta Tau Alpha fraternity presented a very cleaver media campaign which they co-sponsored with Alpha Chi Omega and Pi Kappa Phi. This very simple poster displayed the image of a red Solo Cup. “When you fill me up,” is written across the top of the poster and the message continues down the front of the cup with the words “Know the Strength (proof),” “Know the Amount (ounces),” and “Know the Pour (consumption rate).” Along the sides of the cup are indicators of the alcohol value of 1.25 ounces of liquor (80 proof), 4 ounces of wine and a 12 ounce beer.

This type of visual aid is simple and effective. In a less than a couple of seconds the brain is able to see and equate exactly how much alcohol is consumed in a 12 ounce cup. It is not invasive or intrusive, merely informative. Ultimately, the poster is successful if just one person is able to make a connection between the amount and rate of drinks they are consuming in any given time frame and consciously make a behavior change.

To conclude, I love the idea of tailgating as much as anyone and I am fully supportive of all my university’s sports teams. However, I also fully support the idea of due diligence in that as an employee of a post-secondary institution, we must also always keep the safety of our students in the forefront of minds. As concerned professionals, we should continually be exploring new strategies to increase people’s awareness of the issue of alcohol overconsumption, especially at tailgate parties.


Dyson, K. Turn tailgating into fine art. (2008). The Citizen. (24) C5.
National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. NIAAA council approves definition of binge drinking. NIAAA Newsletter. (2004); No. 3, p. 3.
Pendleton, K.A. Just say yes! Utilizing harm reduction as a prevention practice. Alcohol Prevention Coalition’s Annual Research Summit. (2013).
Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

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