Mark Story

Is it time for UK to get behind the idea of selling beer at Wildcats games?

After a story last week on the Sports Illustrated website characterized the University of Kentucky as steadfast in opposition to changing the SEC's "game-day prohibition" on in-venue alcohol sales, in response, UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, above, and President Eli Capilouto issued a joint statement saying "We are both open to participating in conversations" about possibly changing the policy in the future.
After a story last week on the Sports Illustrated website characterized the University of Kentucky as steadfast in opposition to changing the SEC's "game-day prohibition" on in-venue alcohol sales, in response, UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, above, and President Eli Capilouto issued a joint statement saying "We are both open to participating in conversations" about possibly changing the policy in the future. Associated Press

If you have a life and were not on Twitter this past weekend, you missed quite a kerfuffle over alcohol sales and University of Kentucky athletics events.

It began Friday when SI.com writer Ross Dellenger posted an article from the Southeastern Conference meetings in Destin, Fla., about efforts to alter the SEC's league-wide ban on in-venue alcohol sales at athletics events.

In a declarative statement that did not site a source, the article proclaimed Georgia and Kentucky as the two league schools most steadfast in opposition to ending "game-day prohibition" inside SEC athletics venues.

That prompted Kentucky media personality Matt Jones to take to Twitter to lash UK for allegedly fighting alcohol sales to the common fan while allowing it for the well-to-do in premium seating areas.

"It is hypocritical," Jones wrote.

Next, Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart took to Twitter, too.

In what two UK publicists say was a response to the SI.com article, Barnhart issued a joint statement with Kentucky President Eli Capilouto. The duo denied the University of Kentucky had led the fight against ending "game-day prohibition" in Destin, or even taken any institutional position on the question at all.

"We anticipate that this issue will be the topic of continued discussions," Barnhart and Capilouto's statement said. "We are both open to participating in those discussions moving forward."

"Game-day prohibition" will remain in effect in the Southeastern Conference for 2018-19. After that, should UK use its influence to work to lift the SEC policy forbidding in-venue alcohol sales at sporting events?

It is a complex question.

The University of Louisville has long had alcohol sales in its major sports venues.

In recent years, I've lost count of how many UK football fans have contacted me to complain about rude treatment they've received in the stands from patrons in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium when attending Kentucky-Louisville games.

I can't help but think in-stadium alcohol sales play some role in such breakdowns of fan decorum, especially in games like UK-U of L where emotions are at full boil.

Kyle Bolin at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium
The University of Louisville allows game-day alcohol sales at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, above, and in the KFC Yum Center. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

Since many of the players who compete in college sports are not legally old enough to drink, there at least used to be a feeling that alcohol sales were inconsistent with "the proper collegiate environment."

In recent years, that sentiment seems to be changing. The SI.com article noted that around 40 schools now sell at least beer at their home football games, up from seven in 2007.

For unique historical reasons, the University of Kentucky has reason to be extra sensitive to mingling alcohol with Wildcats sports.

UK is the flagship university in the state where, on May 14, 1988, what was the nation's most-deadly drunk driving accident ever took place.

On I-71 near Carrollton, an intoxicated driver traveling the wrong way in the wrong lane plowed into a church bus filled with 67 people, most of them children, returning home to Radcliff after an outing to King's Island.

As a result of the crash, the bus became an inferno. Twenty-seven people died, 24 of them kids.

One of the survivors of that crash, Harold Dennis, overcame severe burns to become a Kentucky Wildcats wide receiver (1995-97).

On Nov. 15, 1998, UK football starting center Jason Watts crashed his Chevy Scottsdale 4-by-4 pickup truck on U.S. Highway 27 while en route with two passengers from Lexington to Somerset to hunt deer.

Thrown from the vehicle and killed in the wreck were Kentucky defensive lineman Artie Steinmetz and Eastern Kentucky University student Scott Brock, the best friend of then-UK quarterback Tim Couch.

Watts survived, but after it was revealed his blood-alcohol level was .15, he was subsequently charged with two counts of second-degree manslaughter and one count of driving under the influence.

While I am sure expanded alcohol sales at SEC sporting events would have a positive impact on what athletics directors call "the revenue piece," the most compelling argument in favor of at least beer sales in venues such as Kroger Field and Rupp Arena is the populist one.

If the fat cats in the premium seating can drink at games without having to sneak a flask past security, the common fan in the upper deck should at least have the chance to buy a cold beer.

Cans of beer
The Southeastern Conference has a policy of "game-day prohibition" which forbids in-venue alcohol sales in the athletics facilities of its member schools during games. Patrons in luxury suites, however, do have access to alcohol. Photo provided

So whether the University of Kentucky takes the lead or not, it feels like "game-day prohibition" is on its last legs even in the Bible Belt-concentrated SEC.

When the beer starts to flow in SEC sports venues, hopefully UK will be among the schools in position to offer "family-friendly" seating sections where patrons who do not need to drink alcohol to enjoy college sports will still have a place, too.

Mark Story: 859-231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory

University of Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart talks about changes coming to Rupp Arena with new 15-year lease deal between UK and the city.

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