Mark Story

UK decision on beer sales at ballgames is hypocritical. But is it wrong?

Why UK decided against alcohol sales at athletic events

Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart talks about the school’s decision not to sell alcohol in general seating areas during athletic events. The SEC has lifted its ban on such sales by member schools.
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Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart talks about the school’s decision not to sell alcohol in general seating areas during athletic events. The SEC has lifted its ban on such sales by member schools.

When the Southeastern Conference announced this spring that it was lifting its prohibition on alcohol sales in general-seating areas at ballgames, I thought one factor would compel the University of Kentucky to allow beer sales at Kroger Field and Rupp Arena.

UK already allows patrons in premium seating areas for Wildcats football games in Kroger Field access to alcohol.

Three new “clubs” are being built on the west side of Rupp Arena where alcohol will also be available to well-heeled fans who have purchased entry.

Since the “fat cats” already have access to alcohol at Cats games, it would be the height of hypocrisy for UK to deny “Jack and Jill Average Fan” at least the chance to buy beer or wine at games.

That alone, I figured, would compel UK to expand alcohol sales at games.

Turns out, that was wrong.

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The University of Kentucky has decided not to take advantage of a change in Southeastern Conference policy that would have allowed UK to sell beer in general-seating areas of its sports venues. File photo The Wichita Eagle

On Thursday, Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart announced that there will be no expansion of alcohol sales at UK games.

“It is our goal, as well as our responsibility, to create a safe, secure and positive, engaging environment for fans of all ages and from all walks of life,” Barnhart said at a news conference at Kroger Field. “We believe we have an outstanding college fan experience at our games.”

The decision, which Barnhart said he made after consultations with UK President Eli Capilouto and campus safety officials, leaves the status quo in effect.

There will still be one set of rules (alcohol available) for fans with the means to buy their way into premium-seating areas. There will be a different set of rules (alcohol not sold) for the general public.

“I understand that is a concern,” Barnhart said. “There is an availability in the premium areas that is different. I recognize that. But the overarching (factor is), 55,000 people in the stands, we feel like we’ve got an experience that feels at this point and time (like) a college experience should feel like.”

In terms of managing crowds, Barnhart said there is a massive difference between allowing limited alcohol access in select areas and selling adult beverages throughout a football stadium.

“We have fewer people in terms of responsibility,” Barnhart says. “You do the math, it’s not nearly the massive numbers we are responsible for (in the general-seating sections).”

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Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart sited a desire to maintain a family-friendly atmosphere as a reason UK has decided not to expand alcohol sales into general-seating areas at Wildcats sporting events. Silas Walker

For historical reasons both recent and well past, the University of Kentucky has reason to be extra-sensitive to the linkage of alcohol and its football games.

Last September 15, a child was struck by a car outside Kroger Field during a Wildcats football game. The vehicle was driven by a then-UK student that police allege was legally intoxicated after tailgating.

Two days later, Marco Shemwell, 4, died from his injuries. The driver of the car, Jacob Heil, now 19, will stand trial for reckless homicide next April.

Twenty-one years ago, UK football starting center Jason Watts crashed his 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.

Moving forward, Barnhart says he wants parents to continue to be comfortable bringing their children to see Mark Stoops’ Wildcats at Kroger Field or John Calipari’s Cats at Rupp Arena.

“We want people to feel like it is a family-friendly, safe place to come to watch sporting events that focus primarily on young people playing the games,” Barnhart said.

How one feels about UK’s double standard on providing access to alcohol at its ballgames likely depends on one’s personal preferences.

I don’t drink beer. One of my least favorite things in the world is being around the intoxicated and the mouthy at sporting events.

So if UK can live with its hypocrisy, I can, too.

Conversely, if you are:

1.) one for whom drinking beer or other alcoholic beverages is an integral part of your enjoyment of the sports-venue experience;

2.) a populist who burns with indignity that UK makes no bones about treating the well-to-do differently than everyone else;

Then, the decision Kentucky announced Thursday is not likely going down very well.

“There are a lot of strong feelings on both sides of the issue,” Barnhart said. “I don’t think you are gonna please everybody on every issue. But, at the end of the day, what I think we have created (at UK games) is a pretty good family environment. And we don’t want to do anything to disrupt that.”

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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