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Debate brewing at UMD over game day alcohol sales

A panorama of Byrd Stadium during team introductions.
A panorama of Byrd Stadium during team introductions. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun)

University of Maryland student Patrick Ronk knows it sounds counterintuitive — even a little "scary"— to permit beer and wine sales at Terps athletic events to curb the binge drinking climate associated with college game days.

But the student government president reasons: "If you sell alcohol, people will have a stable and consistent way to drink during the game."

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That's better, the junior said, than students overindulging before entering the stadium or leaving at halftime to drink more when "the buzz is wearing off. For some people, drinking is more important than the actual game."

The student-led proposal to permit alcohol sales to the general public beginning this fall is gaining traction. It was endorsed overwhelmingly in March by the Athletic Council, an advisory body composed mostly of faculty members, and has now moved to President Wallace D. Loh, who has final say.

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The plan also would require approval of the Prince George's County liquor board.

If adopted, Maryland would join several-dozen universities — West Virginia, Minnesota and Syracuse among them — that permit alcohol to be sold to the general public at football games.

On fan websites, some critics characterized the Maryland proposal as a money grab by the school. Others said it would threaten the family atmosphere at games or expose underage students to drinking.

A public comment period ends Friday, and the university had received 901 comments as of Monday.

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While some schools generate athletic department revenue from alcohol sales, University of Maryland officials said in an open letter that proceeds would be directed "from Athletics to campus-wide student support activities, such as mental health services, responsible drinking initiatives and diversity training."

Football games would present by far the largest market for beer and wine, but the Maryland policy would permit such sales during other athletic contests, too. Maryland averages between 45,000 and 50,000 fans per game for football.

The student section at Byrd Stadium seats about 10,000. The majority of students attending are below the drinking age of 21, said physics professor Nick Hadley, the Athletic Council chair.

"You've got a lot of people at the games who are underage. That was definitely discussed," Hadley said.

But Hadley said he supported the proposal, in part because it provides a monitored environment during events often associated with excessive drinking.

"College game days are widely accepted to be among the heaviest days for alcohol consumption on college campuses, often trumping holidays, vacations, and other noteworthy university events," according to a report prepared by Maryland's Student Government Association in December.

Hadley said he studied in-stadium beer sales at West Virginia University in 2011. After the policy change, the university found fewer incidents of rowdy behavior attributed to binge drinking outside the stadium.

But that decline also could have been caused partly by a procedural shift. At the same time it permitted beer sales, the university barred fans from returning to the stadium after leaving to drink at tailgates. Maryland has a similar policy against re-entry at Byrd Stadium.

"It's very hard to get an apples-to-apples comparison," Hadley said.

Local elected officials haven't taken a stance. The College Park City Council planned to discuss the plan on Tuesday night "and will likely be weighing in at that time," College Park Mayor Andrew M. Fellows.

"Too soon," Fellows said in an email Monday when asked for his own position.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving offered a statement neither endorsing nor criticizing the plan.

"MADD urges that any time adults purchase alcohol — at a store, by mobile device, or in a stadium — that they always designate a non-drinking driver if they choose to drink, and that they do not provide alcohol to anyone under 21," the organization said.

In 2008, Maryland decided to allow beer and wine sales starting in the 2009 football season in 64 new luxury suites, but nowhere else in Byrd Stadium. That policy — similar to policies at many other schools — states that suite sales must be carefully monitored, sales personnel trained and certified, and drink maximums enforced. Suite guests sometimes sip drinks at bars and watch flat-screen TVs when they're not watching the game.

Ronk, a government and politics major who, at 20, is not yet permitted to drink, said he is troubled by the notion that "the wealthy fans can handle their alcohol but the common rabble can't handle it."

Said Hadley: 'There has been the argument that if you let the suites have a beer then anybody of legal age should be able to have a beer."

The student government proposal originally suggested that in-stadium alcohol sales be limited to two drinks per person and cut off at the end of the third quarter. It suggested that identifying wrist bands could be provided to students of legal drinking age.

The proposal approved by the council included more general language. It said the plan "should contain sensible restrictions such as limiting the number of drinks that can be purchased at one time and ending sales after the third quarter of or midway through the second half of games as appropriate." Under the proposal, the plan would be revisited after the first year.

If the plan is adopted, Hadley said, the specifics would be left to the athletic department and dining services staff.

The university declined to make public the hundreds of comments received so far. A spokesman said Loh would not be available for interviews during the comment period because he wants the debate to proceed on its own merits.

"It's great that people are voicing their opinion," said Ian Moritz, a junior who is the undergraduate representative on the Athletic Council.

"Game day at all college campuses sometimes turns more into a party environment," said Moritz, who backs the proposal. "Supporting the Terps comes first and partying shouldn't be the idea of game day."

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