Universities are spending millions to curb dangerous drinking. Yet blackout partying persists in a puke-and-rally culture. Bridge investigates what works, and what doesn’t, in the ongoing battle to keep college students safe.
GAME DAY: BRIDGE LOOKS AT COLLEGE DRINKING
First of two parts.
It’s not yet 8 a.m., and Steve is having his coffee with a splash of Baileys Irish Cream. In another 15 minutes, he and six roommates will pour themselves mimosas. One friend reports he needs something stronger; another stipulates, “I’ll do Jaeger, but not Smirnoff.”
The music playing in their Ann Arbor living room is party-volume. Everyone’s wearing some combination of maize and blue – along with most everyone else in town. The Michigan Wolverines play Oregon State at noon. It’s a Saturday. Game day.
Before the day is through, Steve, a computer science major, will join thousands of students on campuses across Michigan getting hammered. Whether they start with breakfast beer, Baileys or a flavored whiskey, they “pre-game” with alcohol and post-game as well. Inside Michigan Stadium, as most college stadiums, not a drop can be purchased. But outside, the ounces poured and consumed by students (and rowdy alums) could float a rowing team.
Bridge reporters, working with journalists from the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Central Michigan University and Northern Michigan University, are chronicling college binge culture on Saturday, Sept. 12 – a weekend considered among the most dangerous for high-risk drinking. It is the first home football game at U-M, a nationally televised night game at Michigan State, a home game at CMU and the first game in a decade at Northern Michigan where beer is being sold in the stadium.
This story was written by Bridge reporters Nancy Derringer and Ron French, and reported by Derringer, French, Bridge reporter Mike Wilkinson, and student journalists at four universities, with photographs by Brian Widdis and the students. They are:
CENTRAL MICHIGAN UNIVERSITY
MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY
NORTHERN MICHIGAN UNIVERSITY
UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN, ANN ARBOR
All four are large public universities and, like schools across much of the country, have stubbornly persistent rates of dangerous drinking. Over 24 hours, we find dizzily drunk or passed-out students on streets awash in booze, scenes that test the limits of well-intentioned education campaigns, police crackdowns and state policy initiatives. At least 91 people will be arrested or cited for underage drinking; in Ann Arbor alone, 22 are hospitalized for alcohol-related problems.
And this is a light day.
From early morning beer pong to late-night alumni tailgates with full bars, the day illustrates the difficulty of crafting effective university and state policies to curb binge drinking. Schools have spent years advising, encouraging and threatening students to drink responsibly. Still, nearly 40 percent of college students who drink say they’ve drunk until they black out. It’s a scourge that’s not just confined to football Saturdays.
“If there were another drug being used today that sent 20-30 kids a week to the emergency department, and a few of them died, it would be a national outrage,” says Dr. Steven Kronick, an emergency specialist at the University of Michigan Health System, which triages Ann Arbor alcohol casualties.
Instead, it’s just another weekend on campus.
THE NEW NORMAL
It’s safe to say these students were raised by attentive parents who equipped them with shin guards and bike helmets and transported them in vehicles equipped with airbags and antilock brakes. They were slathered in sunscreen and insect repellent, taught to avoid cigarettes and eat leafy greens. Turned loose on the state’s colleges, they are doing what young adults do – forging independent identities and testing out new, adult behaviors. Parents who followed the same paths through college may wonder what the big deal is.
But students today are drinking in ways their parents might find alarming. Beer is only part of what’s on the bar; half-gallon bottles of hard liquor are routine at parties, as is the mixing of alcohol and prescription drugs. Entire shelves at the campus liquor store are devoted to vodka in flavors ranging from cotton candy to Cinnabon, catnip to newbies who find ordinary spirits too strong. Add to that caffeine-and-alcohol fortified energy drinks, in flavors familiar to any 4-year-old with a juice box, and today’s student drinkers are staying awake longer and consuming more booze than the class of 19-whatever.
And some are dying.
In the past year, students, or partying friends of students, died on three of the four campuses Bridge visited. Michael Hartnett, 18, of Dearborn Heights, drowned in a pond on the Central Michigan University campus last October, after a night of drinking. Jiayi Dai hadn’t even begun classes at Michigan State University when she was found dead in her bed last August, with a blood-alcohol level of .41. And when Josh Brigham, 21, fell to his death through the glass roof of Ann Arbor’s Nickels Arcade this summer, his blood-alcohol level was .20 (more than twice the standard for drunken driving).
What gets far less attention, and yet has become sadly routine in hospitals near college campuses, is the parade of vomiting or passed-out students crowding emergency rooms.
More than 200 intoxicated people, many of them students, ended up hospitalized after the U-M football game in East Lansing last year, and it’s common for dozens to spend the game on gurneys rather than stadium bleachers on fall Saturdays. Today we chronicle game-day drinking culture on four campuses. In part 2, Bridge examines what officials in Lansing and at Michigan universities are doing, or could be doing, to keep students safe.
LET THE PRE-GAMING BEGIN
Bridge photo by Emma Kerr
A hearty game-day celebration requires advance planning, and organized Wolverine fans are gathered at Campus Corner, the liquor store closest to the State and Packard ground zero of Ann Arbor pregame festivities. A 21-year-old junior buys a “handle” – the half-gallon bottle, with a handle – of Fireball, a cinnamon-flavored whiskey, saying “it would taste the best in the morning.” He also buys two 5-Hour Energy drinks and a Red Bull. He plans to wake up at 7 a.m., and he’ll need to focus.
Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” echoes down State and Packard in Ann Arbor. The sun is up, and a pickup truck has already pulled away from the curb with two kegs in the bed, destination unknown. A little over a mile away, in the parking lot of Ann Arbor’s Pioneer High School, the RVs are in place, the tents are up and dedicated tailgaters are flying their Block M flags, bars stocked with rum, Jagermeister, Fireball, vodka and beer. It’s the first home game for the new coach, Jim Harbaugh, and everyone has high hopes for this once-dominant team. The weather is clear and crisp, the school year still young.
For Steve, it’s time to move the pregame to another friend’s home. He offers sunscreen all around – since it’s easy to burn while watching the game for four hours, Steve reminds everyone, as if the September sun is the most dangerous thing on the day’s menu. After putting down his can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, his fourth drink of the morning, he and a friend depart.
The store in East Lansing is named Quality Dairy, but it’s liquor that lines the shelves behind the counter. A female student picks three pints of flavored vodka – raspberry, mango and cinnamon. The clerk asks for ID. The student fumbles through her wallet, telling the clerk she must have left it at home. The clerk stares. The student leaves.
Another clerk wheels a cart with two kegs of beer to the trunk of two fifth-year seniors hosting a house party. Deciding what to drink is key to enjoying game day, they say, a lesson as valuable as any they’ve learned in lecture halls. “The Wisconsin Hail Mary game (MSU beat Wisconsin on a long, last-second pass) was when I was a freshman. I missed the first half,” one says. “I mean, I technically saw it, but I don’t remember it. I was drinking liquor.” Beer forces you to go slower, says the other. “There’s definitely a learning curve.”
It’s that learning curve that frustrates college administrators. Every year, tens of thousands of freshmen flood Michigan campuses, many wanting the college experience they see in movies or YouTube videos, but not knowing strategies to stay safe. “They don’t know what they don’t know,” says Lt. Scott Wriggelsworth of the East Lansing Police Department.
Back in Ann Arbor, a beer funnel hangs from a home’s upstairs window, its tubing falling to street level. Next door, fraternity bros play beer pong. The makings of peppermint patties – a popular drink – dot the table. How it works: The drinker kneels on the ground while a friend pours a shot of peppermint-flavored vodka, followed by a squirt of chocolate syrup, into the drinker’s mouth.
Researchers note that “extreme drinking” is increasingly the norm on college campuses, even as the overall percentage of students who drink has actually gone down. Consider the popularity of number-based drinking games; such as the “21 for 21” phenomenon, drinking 21 shots on your 21st birthday. In a 2008 study published in the American Psychological Association, researchers surveyed 2,500 students at the University of Missouri. An astounding 34 percent of male students reported downing 21 drinks or more on their 21st birthday, as did 24 percent of female students. MSU junior Brad McCue died after drinking 21 shots on his 21st birthday in 1999. His family sends birthday cards to students turning 21, begging them to celebrate moderately.
Back at a U-M frat, a sign reading “Rush Delta Rush America” waves in the breeze. A young man stands atop a plywood tabletop double-fisting a champagne bottle and a plastic bottle of orange juice. The mood is vibrant as students chant “Go Blue” across the street to one another and dance. Many fraternities and house parties have orange plastic fencing surrounding the lawns, and some have private security guards to help control the crowd. Other parties blocked off outside areas with blue tarps. It’s an article of faith among youthful partiers that if police can’t see what’s going on, they won’t have reason to enter the party and check IDs. It’s also a good way to limit access to parties that can get crowded, fast.
Bridge photo by Brian Widdis
Ann Arbor police shut down a party on East University, which included several blue tarps. Cops are holding ticket pads, but are mostly shepherding people out of the area as students search for a new party. Shutting down parties is a common way to keep celebrations from getting out of control. But it also carries unintended consequences: Experts say it’s safer to drink in the same place and drink the same thing – neither of which happens as students wander down the street looking for the next open bar.
And, note to frats: Police are not impressed by the tarp gambit.
“The tarp is something new, but it doesn’t deaden sound, and people get intoxicated so they don’t pay attention,” says Sgt. Craig Flocken of the Ann Arbor Police Department. In other words, if police can find a reason to come in, they will.
Moments later, a student at a house party speaking on a megaphone was detained by officers. “That’s what happens when you party too much,” Flocken said.
The student is held in the van for a few minutes, but is eventually let out. His friends gather around the police. One yelled, “I support you guys in Ferguson.” Another is cruder: “F— the police.”
Steve is drunk. He’s had about eight drinks, two more than he says it takes to get him there. At his second pre-game of the day, Steve gets his hands on boxed wine, vodka and keg beer. He’s getting sloppy. His words are slurring, he’s mindlessly slapping empty cups onto the lawn next door, and his conversation starters are a little off-putting (he compares, for instance, Ann Arbor cops to Nazis). Still, Steve appears to be having fun. He’s talking with a lot of different people he knows, giving high fives all around and dancing.
U-M’s Sigma Chi house is rocking. Guests are playing beer pong, dancing on the porch, singing “Stacy’s Mom” at the top of their lungs. A guy carrying a young woman on his shoulders walks to the porch and kneels down so she can grab a drink, then stands and carries her away. Two women are having a beer chugging contest nearby. Others do shots. Sigma Chi, steps from the fabled Michigan Union, does not do plastic tarps. Frat members and their guests drink openly, without hassle.
A young man wearing a bright orange shirt emblazoned MONITOR stands at the gate, a few paces from the action, doing his duty. The job description is explained in the Social Environment Management Policy, a 19-page document that sets out party rules for Greek organizations. Sober monitors are supposed to control access to Greek parties and circulate regularly to ensure no one’s getting over-served or out of hand. Their effectiveness is not entirely clear. In a 2014 survey of U-M freshmen who say they drink, 46 percent drink at fraternities. The national average is 14 percent.
Sigma Chi’s gatekeeper appears sad; he certainly looks sober. Asked how he drew the job, he explains they have a house point system, and he’s the low point man at the moment.
On Hill Street in Ann Arbor, two police cars pull up to a young man lying on the ground in a fetal position. Others look on, holding bottles in brown paper bags. As police look for the prone man’s ID, the drinkers smile, laugh and high-five a passerby they know. The kid on the ground can’t seem to get up. Finally, one of the onlookers bends to rub his shoulder. The cops flag down an ambulance; the young man needs help to stand and be maneuvered onto a gurney.
Bridge photo by Malachi Barrett
Steve has fueled his pregame with at least 14 drinks, though it’s hard to measure how much alcohol he ingested when drinking straight from the bottle, which he did at least three times. He’s knocked a whiteboard from the refrigerator, and opened a container of baby tomatoes as a chaser for a shot of peach vodka.
As the half-dozen or so people leave the apartment, Steve tries to give a friend a piggy-back ride, nearly running both of them into the wall.
“Be a little less drunk, for once,” another friend advises.
It’s game day in Mt. Pleasant, too. The campus of Central Michigan University isn’t as sprawling and its football program not as well-known as that of the state’s two largest schools, but the spirit burns just as bright, and the urge to party is just as strong. In a 2014 survey, 41 percent of CMU freshmen said they’d drank to the point of blacking out in the past two weeks. The student migration begins south through CMU’s campus to tailgating in Lot 43. The game is still four hours away.
Students carry backpacks and coolers, typically filled with liquor, past Warriner Hall, CMU’s administrative offices, where high schoolers and their parents are gathering for a special introduction to CMU programs. Shouts of “Fire Up Chips” are repeated as they make the more than one mile walk to Kelly/Shorts Stadium.
In East Lansing, a small group gathers outside the porch of a student-rented house, classic rock blaring from an upstairs window, pints of Fireball whiskey and empty Keystone cans lining the railing.
They’re braving chilly rainfall to witness their friend, who has climbed onto the slick porch roof to hang a cardboard cutout of ESPN “College Gameday” host Lee Corso, strung up with a noose of green and white Christmas lights.
Corso’s crime: picking the University of Oregon to win that night’s game.
Bridge photo by Sam Gringlas
Foot traffic to Michigan Stadium is starting to wane; kickoff is in 15 minutes and most have reached the Big House. The frat parties have emptied, the tarps flaps no longer guarded. A painted sheet of plywood reads “Puke or go home.” Cleaning crews are picking up the wreckage.
Two days earlier, U-M President Mark Schlissel spoke to a gathering of campus Greek organizations on the need for fraternities and sororities to more seriously confront a culture of rampant partying and sexual assault, ills that are hardly confined to Michigan universities.
“I don’t like the idea that we measure how good or bad a weekend was by how many of you ended up in an ambulance taken to our emergency room,” Schlissel was quoted by the Michigan Daily, the student paper. “That’s not how we should measure how good a time we are having.”
The Daily noted that some in the crowd coughed, “Animal House”-style, during the talk.
Back on Hill Street, a young man is standing on a porch rail, weaving a little and shaking up beers as hard as he can while maintaining his balance. When he’s convinced they’re fully armed, he flings them onto the driveway. One detonates with a satisfying explosion of fizz. A security guard watches impassively.
In Mt. Pleasant, CMU Police Officer Laura Rico stops students playing flip cup (don’t ask) with beer in Lot 43.
Rico is a community engagement officer, assigned to working with students and staff to reduce crime in residence halls. She is well-known among students and politely asks a Kalamazoo junior to pour alcohol he’s drinking in a glass cup into plastic. Alcohol is allowed, but glass is banned.
“Sure thing, Officer Rico,” the student says. “Are you still teaching Zumba classes?”
Rico nods and smiles. “Have a good day, y’all.”
Far away in the Upper Peninsula, another school, Northern Michigan University, is starting its day with “Beer Fest” at Marquette’s Lower Harbor. Students join locals in a long line to sample 15 three-ounce samples of craft beer, some with alcohol content twice that of the cheap beer students normally drink. Drinking is as much a part of U.P. culture as pasties and hard work; in the late 1800s, Marquette had more than 100 registered drinking establishments to serve thirsty loggers and miners.
A group of CMU students are dancing in a crowd near the Mt. Pleasant campus. “We’ve had 13 Jell-O shots today,” a male student says to no one in particular.
Nearby, other students are taking Adderall. Meant to diminish the effect of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the prescription medicine is popular on college campuses, both as a study aid, and to enhance the feeling of intoxication and stay awake so they can drink more.
As the Chippewa football team battles Monmouth in the home opener, some students straggle past Kelly/Shorts Stadium, opting not to go in. One girl, held up by her friend, blurts “I think I’ll lay down,” and falls into the grass. Cannons go off, signaling the Chips scored a touchdown. The girl lays in the grass for a few minutes before others come by and, with someone under each arm, she staggers north.
For the stragglers, the march that had started jauntily toward the stadium with chants and songs, now resembles a retreating army. Every fourth or fifth group includes someone being helped by friends from the tailgating area. “I’m f—-ed up, I’m not going to lie,” one girl says to her friend.
Bridge photo by Meagan Beck
A line forms outside the Spartan Spirits liquor store a block from campus. The football team’s high-profile showdown against the Oregon Ducks is still four hours away. Inside, the line winds around the store to the cash register. Outside, a high school senior waits for his older sister, an MSU senior. It is the first MSU football game for the boy, and first time to East Lansing without their parents. His sister emerges with a brown bag, from which she pulls a handle of Captain Morgan spiced rum. She hands it to her brother and encourages him to drink from the bottle. He takes two gulps; his proud sister cheers.
At a block party on Collingwood Street in East Lansing, lawns are packed with students drinking and chatting. In some yards, crowds swell until people spill into the sidewalk and the road – public property, where they’re vulnerable to open container violations and other citations.
At one house a cop pulls up and parks, idling. At first, the students pay him no mind. But the patrol SUV doesn’t leave. A few casual glances from the crowd turn into prolonged, nervous stares.
The officer finally steps out and asks a student carrying a half-empty case of beer for ID. As he opens his wallet, one of the party’s organizers coaxes the crowd away from the roadway.
Outside El Azteco, a student hangout a block from the MSU Union, two students toss a green and white football. An incomplete pass comes to rest inches from a puddle of vomit. The students laugh.
Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity at MSU has lined its lawn with an orange fence. Junior sorority girls wearing green and white letters dance on a bar table, while guys discuss being cited for minor in possession (MIP) violations. One in the group recalls a citation he received last year. Today is the first day’s he’s drank since then. A buddy reassures him, slurring, “This is worth it.”
Two female MSU students hold a male friend at each elbow who is having trouble making it to the stadium. “Why are these steps so steep?” he asks.
“It’s a sidewalk,” one of the girls explains.
He sees some alums and screams, “Go green!” They shout, “Go white!”
“I love MSU,” he says, and walks face first into a tree.
The football program is smaller than its downstate counterparts, but it’s game day in Marquette, too. The Wildcats of Northern Michigan are playing the Quincy University Hawks and, with all due respect to the players, the most remarkable fact about this matchup may be that this is the first day beer is being sold inside the Superior Dome. While U-M and MSU are taking steps to keep drinking away from the games, through the banning of drinking games at some tailgating areas and limiting tailgate hours, Northern is going the opposite direction and allowing those over 21 to drink at the game. This is trending at more college venues, the theory being that if beer is available at the game, students will do less binge drinking before they arrive. And talk about a bargain ‒ it’s only $3 for a 24-ounce cup, just 50 cents more than for a soft drink.
Bridge photo by Maria Braganini
Three hours before MSU’s kickoff, in the back of one fraternity, tucked away from the road, a pregame party with over 100 students is humming. The backyard is a whirlwind of dancing, music and booze, the ground wet with rainfall and spilled drinks. Four-in-10 MSU students who drink at all report in surveys having drank so much at some point in the year, they couldn’t remember where they were or what they did.
There are at least four kegs. At one, a student drinks directly from the tap for half a minute; at another, a student whirls the tap, spraying everyone with beer. A drink is knocked from the balcony above, dousing a girl.
In the corner of the backyard is a middle-aged man. He’s smiling broadly, taking it all in. He was dragged to the party by his daughter, an MSU student who is evidently out on the dance floor. The father graduated from Clemson, but says the parties he attended in college were nothing like this. “This is much more intense,” he says.
“I’m the shot fairy,” slurs a female MSU student at another nearby party, “and you guys need a drink.” She’s holding a fifth of mango-flavored vodka in one hand and a two-liter bottle of soda in the other. The fifth goes round a group of students, with each tilting his head back, taking a pull from the bottle. She eggs them on, teasing, “That was just a sip,” and lavishing praise when bubbles churn in the upturned vodka.
Dennis Martell scans the students standing in line waiting to get their bags and coats checked by security before entering Spartan Stadium. “See that guy?” Martell says, nodding toward a young man leaning unsteadily against a concrete barricade. “He’s trashed. He’s not getting in.”
Martell, director of MSU’s efforts to stem alcohol abuse, tells a guard the intoxicated student needs help. He turns to point him out, but the student has wandered away. They find him hanging onto a tree, trying to use his cell phone. He gets into the stadium, but not the way he wanted. Police lead him to a first aid station, from where he will likely be taken to the hospital. “I don’t want to get the kid in trouble,” Martell said, “but I don’t want him to die, either.”
Martell is fretting about tonight’s Oregon game, which he calls a “perfect storm” for alcohol abuse. It’s the first home football game of the year. It’s a night game, so students have had all day to pre-game. He’s been told it’s an important game (he doesn’t much follow sports). The weather is good and the freshmen are inexperienced. The possibilities for disaster rumble in his head like distant thunder.
“So far it’s been quiet,” he says. “Sometimes, storms pass. But I’ll be glad when today’s over.”
The game’s an hour away, but the day is over for one MSU freshman, who mistakes a room in the north side of his dorm for his actual room on the south side. A receptionist finds the young man passed out in the lobby and calls the resident assistant on duty. RA’s can call police or an ambulance for intoxicated students. Instead, the RA tracks down the drunk freshman’s roommate, who is sober, who gets him back to his dorm room.
Bridge photo by Brian Widdis
In the gridlocked parking lot of an East Lansing frat, a drunk female student cuts her foot on a broken bottle as she was leaving the party in loose sandals. She’s crying and bleeding heavily, surrounded by onlookers. After a few minutes, some brothers bring out a first aid kit and, strangely, the party’s large ice luge, which they’ve been pouring booze down throughout the party, to cool her foot.
Soon her foot is crudely bandaged, the booze luge broken and abandoned, and everyone wanders away as her sobs subside. Ten minutes later, she is still sitting on the asphalt, trying to find an Uber to take her to the hospital.
As the Spartans and Ducks rush onto the field for the big game, across the Red Cedar River, a young woman is alone, passed out on a bench on a patio outside the main library. A Budweiser case sits nearby.
Three male students walk by. One notices the scene and hops over a cement bench onto the library patio. He picks up the Budweiser case, sees there are no cans of beer left, throws it down and runs past the passed-out student to catch up with his friends.
A gentle hum of generators fills the air across the lawns of MSU. The glow of flat-screen televisions flicker like fireflies in the tailgate tents of fans who have come to campus to watch their beloved Spartans on TV, in parking lots and grass strips close enough to hear the stadium roar.
Staying outside Spartan Stadium has one advantage: They can keep drinking. MSU cracked down on drinking games like beer pong in the tailgate areas a few years ago. But from the looks of the well-stocked bars, it’s likely many of the adults descending on East Lansing this game day are more familiar with Captain Morgan than the captains of the football team.
Alcohol abstinence is a hard message to sell to 18-year-old freshmen who see the drinking traditions of older adults on game day. “It’s not the students, it’s the parents,” says one tailgater, watching the kickoff on TV despite having tickets. He nods toward a middle-aged woman in a lawn chair, chin on her chest. “That one there is passed out,” he notes, “in that chair where she upchucked on the sidewalk.”
Two drunk students inside Spartan Stadium go from row to row, trying to find their friends. They find an open bench to stand on and try to sing the MSU fight song, a 5-second lag behind the rest of the student section. One falls backward off a metal bench onto concrete steps.
Bridge photo by Brian Widdis
A female student is giving a friend a tour along Grand River Avenue, MSU’s main strip. “I threw up against this pole,” she says, walking unsteadily. “And I threw up at that tree up there.”
Back in Mt. Pleasant, the entire stretch of Main Street from Bellows to High is filled with kids heading in one direction, a migration from dorms to house and frat parties. Most dorm students are underage.
In Mt. Pleasant, at the southern point of the main student housing neighborhood, a flash mob of sorts appears. It’s a relatively slow night in the neighborhood, with only a few parties going. But everyone seems to know where the free food is. It’s at His House, a Christian ministry. To attract potential followers, the house fires up a huge grill every Friday and Saturday night and makes hot dogs.
They’re free and almost everyone in Mt. Pleasant calls them Jesus dogs.
So many kids swarm that the crowd almost spills into the street. Some are visibly drunk; most take the free hot dog and some play basketball before disappearing into the night.
Bridge photo by Michael Klarin
In downtown Marquette, it’s standing-room only in Remies, a bar catering to college students for a half century. In one corner, four students are sipping the bar’s specialty, 32-ounce plastic cups of “sex on the beach,” a sweet concoction of vodka, cranberry juice, peach schnapps and orange juice. They order shots, too, knocking them back while holding their noses. Almost half of NMU freshmen report having consumed at least five drinks in one sitting in the past two weeks.
Outside, a police cruiser idles on the corner.
With 30 seconds left on the clock and victory assured, the MSU student section inside Spartan Stadium switch from cheering for the game to cheering for the post-game.
“Let’s get drunk! Let’s get drunk!”
Northern Michigan students celebrate their first victory of the season at a house party on Longyear Avenue when a police cruiser pulls up. “Get out of the road,” the officer instructs over the P.A. system from his cruiser.
As the crowd disperses, one student pulls away in an old car. The officer turns on the cruiser’s lights and pulls him over. It’s to set an example for onlookers, the cop confides. The police car pulls away without writing a ticket. The officer has bigger fish to fry. Two women are publicly urinating down the street.
Bridge photo by Simon Schuster
In Cedar Village, one of most densely-packed student housing areas of East Lansing, students return from the game ready to pick up where they left off four hours earlier.
Because it’s Michigan State, the students chant, “Go Green! Go White!”
Because it’s Michigan State, a fire is lit.
MSU has a well-documented tradition of student celebrations involving flames. Authorities have cracked down on the practice, banning couches (a favorite offering) on front porches, and making it a violation to be within 300 feet of an unlawful fire in a street.
This blaze is the size of a small campfire, mostly trash. When police arrive in force 10 minutes later, the crowd disperses without any arrests and the fire is extinguished.
Twenty minutes later, a sacrificial couch is dropped on the street. Students chant “burn the couch,” then suddenly go quiet. Even from a distance you can hear a lighter flick three times. Flames quickly spread across the seats.
The crowd erupts, but police are prepared. The students bask in the glow for about about 10 seconds before a patrol car comes flying down the street, siren squealing.
Bridge photo by Ben Solis
A male student is flat on his back in an alley behind a house in Mt. Pleasant. He’s drunk, for sure. But he’s also bleeding, from a punch to the nose. Emergency crews arrive and take him away.
House parties are called basement parties among NMU students. Police break up celebrations quickly in Marquette, so students have gone underground, literally, dancing and drinking in “Michigan basements,” the damp, sometimes dirt-floored foundations of old homes. They’re smelly and dirty, but the walls are thick enough that neighbors can’t hear the music. Thirty or more people are crammed into this one. An iPhone is plugged into a speaker set in one corner, pumping out music. It’s an unpleasant place to hang out, but nobody seems to mind.
It’s a party, like so many parties in campuses across the state. Everyone is young and rule No. 1 is, “Never go home sober.”
STAYING SAFE ON GAME DAY
The safe-drinking mantra is everywhere: Enjoy responsibly. So if you are going to drink, here are some ways to protect your health, your dignity and your safety, on any day:
IF YOU’RE DRINKING, EAT SOMETHING. This is no time to watch calories. Food slows the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream, particularly fats and proteins. Some schools are opening dining halls early on game days with this in mind. So have a good breakfast before tailgating – the three-egg omelet is your friend.
USE TECHNOLOGY. The University of Michigan has a free mobile app called “Stay in the Blue.” It’s a standard blood-alcohol estimator; you punch in your gender and weight, and record your intake (there’s a menu of drink choices, including the lethal Irish Car Bomb). It tells you if you’re keeping it in the .06 range, under the state standard for drunk driving of .08. Anyone can download it – even Spartans.
KNOW YOUR DRINK. Did you see the punch being mixed? No? Give it a pass. Lots of alcohol can hide behind a sweet mixer like fruit juice. Also, remember when your mother dropped you off freshman year and begged you not to accept an open container from someone you don’t know or trust? She wasn’t being paranoid. Don’t take concoctions from strangers and never leave a drink unattended. Google “date rape + Cosby”
BRING A FRIEND. Students who are drinking are at a higher risk of assault, including sexual assault. A buddy brings protection.
BRING A CONDOM. Leaving aside judgments on campus hook-up culture, research suggests college students are more likely to have unplanned or unprotected sex after drinking. Condoms help protect against unwanted pregnancies and STD’s.
PACE YOURSELF. Sip your drink, don’t gulp. Alternate drinks with plain water; it keeps you hydrated so you drink less. Watch the clock and limit yourself to one or two an hour.
NO SHOTS. The alcohol in a shot glass, depending on its proof, is as much as you’d get in one or two beers. If you must drink hard liquor, use a mixer. And sip.
KNOW HOW YOU’RE GETTING HOME. Plan your ride so you’re not tempted to drink and drive.
NO GAMES, NO GIMMICKS. Drinking games are designed to get you hammered, fast. So are devices like beer bongs, funnels and whatever your engineering buddy jerry-rigged from used vacuum cleaner parts. Slow, slow, slow.
A WHITE LIE NEVER HURT ANYONE. Unenthusiastic drinkers have been secretly pouring cocktails into potted plants for generations. You can always claim to be taking medication that violently conflicts with alcohol. (“I’ll spare you the details.”) Not into shots? Take a tiny sip and go to the DJ to make a request, losing the drink along the way. Put lime wedges, cherries or other cocktail garnishes on glasses filled with plain soda or juice. In a bar, volunteer to fetch a round and ask the bartender to make yours a “mocktail” – they don’t mind. Use your imagination, college kid.
Finally, if you fear your drinking may already be a problem, or if you’re in search of moderation strategies, these links can help:
EPILOGUE: LESSONS, LEARNED AND UNLEARNED
Back in Ann Arbor, Steve, the hard-partying computer science student, has survived another weekend campaign.
He says he began drinking the summer before arriving in Ann Arbor, and today admits having blacked or “grayed” out more than 10 times.
Why does he drink to the point of losing memory? “It’s fun to – that’s a tough question right there,” Steve says. “A lot of times it’s just like you’re drunk and you’re having a good time so you keep drinking more and more. It’s not like you set out with a plan to black out so, I don’t know. It just kind of happens.
“Taking it easy is definitely a little bit safer,” he says, “but I have no regrets.”
As U-M students walk, or stagger, back to their rooms that evening, chances are a few passed a rack holding the Michigan Daily. On the front page is an article on a memorial service held for Josh Brigham, the 21-year-old psychology major who fell through the Nickels Arcade roof after a night of drinking with a friend in July.
His fraternity brothers at Chi Phi hosted the service, and hundreds of people filled the front porch and lawn at the house. Tealight candles flickered as they remembered the happy, smiling guy who they said always had a positive outlook on life.
The deceased was represented on the porch by a photo, a candle, flowers, a pamphlet from his funeral. And a can of Natural Ice beer.
- Unconscious students on hospital gurneys: A Game Day diary
- What we can do to reduce extreme college drinking
- How one Nebraska school cut dangerous drinking by a third
- Drinking students ring cash registers: the business of alcohol
- Stone-cold sober on game day? It really happens
- In campus hospitals, beds full of drinking casualties