Let’s Get Back to the Game

By Guest Contributor

A large majority of you reading this letter will not recognize my name, so as a way of introduction, I was the football coach at Middlebury from 1973 to 2000.  With that experience, I would like to add my thoughts to the continuing dialogue expressed by some students and alumni regarding the administration’s alcohol-free policy regarding tailgating at football games. 

Speaking from an historical perspective, this is not a new issue. I still have vivid memories of the first football game that I coached in 1973, where I observed a massive group of what I assumed were student fans tailgating in the parking lot outside of Porter Field, the football field at the time. To my dismay, a large percentage of those students never entered the field, and tailgating as I had previously experienced it — as a social gathering of fans whose purpose in being there was to support their team — obviously meant something else to a good number of students at Middlebury. I was soon to learn that this mindset was to be replicated when large numbers of alums returned to tailgate at homecoming and would never see the inside of the stadium.

Unfortunately, from my perspective (I continue to go to all Middlebury games), not much has changed in the course of the last forty years, nor have administrative policies, up until now, even though the College’s legal responsibilities have been vastly expanded with the raising of the legal drinking age. As is so often the case in our society today, the irresponsible actions of a relatively small number of individuals bring with it laws not deemed necessary by the majority -— think texting while driving.

I don’t think there is any question, as President Liebowitz has written, that the rollout of this policy could have been handled in a different manner. However, I believe it is naïve thinking on anyone’s part to assume that the issue of alcohol abuse while tailgating at football games has not been repeatedly addressed by administrators and students in the past. Indeed, policies adopted in 2013 limiting tailgating hours were ignored by a significant group of intoxicated students exhibiting acts of vandalism and disrespect to other fans.  This was the proverbial straw that broke the camels back, and placed College administrators in a position of having to justify how the drunken actions of these students could be permitted in any venue, much less an athletic contest. A tough case to defend, indeed.

The coach in me is compelled to speak out as to why we play varsity sports at all in a place like Middlebury, but I passionately believe they are justified because of the unique educational growth opportunities afforded to the participating athletes. But sports also can provide a tremendous opportunity to unite and create a positive school spirit and aid in uniting a school and local community.  It would be a shame to see this latter aspect diminished because some students, alums and parents are not permitted to drink for a few hours in the course of late morning and early afternoon and take it as a personal affront of their liberties.  There are many things in life demanding our concerns and actions that make the outrage of protesting this regulation laughable. As the popular, modern saying goes, “Give me a break.”

While understanding the sense of frustration cited by responsible acting students and alums who have always acted as mature and supportive fans, the simple fact remains that for many, many years, a small portion of students and alums have come to football games not to support the team, but to party.  For those of you who are truly fans, and are attending games to support your team, I would suggest that attending an alcohol free tailgate for a period of three or four hours at a collegiate athletic venue, in which a college assumes a myriad of legal responsibilities for its student-body, realistically should not be a burdensome task.

For the alums who will shortly be returning to Middlebury for Homecoming Weekend who really do not care about attending the football game with its attendant tailgate restrictions, I would suggest that you petition the college to set up an area disassociated from any athletic venues, which would allow for responsible consumption of alcohol and the socializing opportunities for which many will be returning.  However, very simply, it is time to stop using a football game as the reason to party, when the game has no relevance for those folks.

I would like to congratulate all the students and fans who attended the opening football game, many of whom were probably disgruntled about the new regulations, but nevertheless, acted in a mature and responsible way while supporting their team. It was a different and, dare I say, positive experience in the parking lot.  Go Panthers.  Beat Amherst.


MICKEY HEINECKEN is an Associate Professor Emeritus and a Retired Football and Tennis Coach.