The Yale student body reacted strongly last week to Harvard’s decision to limit alcohol at The Game in November. According to new regulations, students and alumni will be able to acquire alcohol from permitted vendors but will be allowed neither to bring their own substances nor to enter the tailgating grounds if visibly drunk. Students argue that these efforts to curb binge drinking are ruining an age-old tradition that their parents and grandparents have enjoyed.
I’m not here to comment on that. But whether one agrees with the regulations or not, I would argue that tailgating is an extremely peculiar practice that has evolved into an extremely peculiar institution. Regrettably, tailgating takes people out of the stands and thereby takes away from the electricity and excitement of campus sporting events.
The word tailgate, in its relevant use, only first appears in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1980. In the “Official Preppy Handbook,” Lisa Birnbach commented, “Tailgate picnics, whiskey sours in the stadium, and the general complexity of the sport guarantee that nobody knows what is going on.” Whiskey sours in the Bowl aside, this fact remains true 26 years later.
Tailgating has also developed into a far more raucous activity than Birnbach’s Handbook might suggest. In Lot D of Yale’s tailgating area, one might find men and women, dressed in tweed, sipping cider, and eating sandwiches on white bread without the crust — a more traditional tailgate. In the student tailgating area, though, it is a far more colorful scene, almost Halloween-esque. There are flags and expletives flying and students perched on UHaul roofs, but again, little focus on the actual sporting event.
Besides gratuitous costuming that includes koala hats, seersucker jumpsuits and mullets, tailgating’s peculiarity surfaces upon closer examination of the implications of the activity. First of all, student tailgaters are rarely interested in the event taking place inside the stadium while they enjoy themselves outside. During standard home games, such as Yale’s most recent home football contest against San Diego, the Yale Bowl is conspicuously empty. The stadium environment would be significantly enhanced with the addition of the roughly 500 students outside. But the purpose of tailgating is no longer getting ready for the game; instead, tailgating has become something entirely independent.
Second, for some people or organizations, tailgating has become an expensive practice. At NCAA Division I-A football games, fans outfit their trucks and vans with grills, plasma screen televisions, and reclining lounge chairs. At Yale, the purchasing of food and drinks and the renting of U-Hauls has become a major financial expense of many fraternities and some residential colleges. This spending allows for enjoyable and sometimes extravagant events but pays little respect to the fact that Yale athletes are competing just around the corner.
Finally, while socializing commonly takes place at night after a day of sobriety and productivity, tailgating dictates an early wake-up followed by a long day of leisure. It is a Bacchic festival come each Saturday all fall. One can count on little time to study or work during or after a day of tailgating. Instead, today’s culture promotes the joy of spending the entire day at a sporting event, but not ever actually experiencing the game or match being contested. All of which begs the question: why?
Spectator sports came to be for their ability to entertain a crowd. Whether bloodthirsty Romans or scarf-donning collegians, people have embraced sports as an opportunity to watch competition and to embrace a certain sense of camaraderie. But, in an age when nothing is ever enough, tailgating has taken over as a far more entertaining and sensational activity. It is a culture unto itself. No one questions what else they otherwise might be doing on a Saturday afternoon, and understandably so. Students enjoy the company of their friends and the overall spirit that tailgating embodies — a chance to escape the day-to-day. It is at times excessive, but is nevertheless tremendous fun and, for the most part, harmless.
Unfortunately, the institution of tailgating, especially at a place such as Yale where fans are limited, has taken away from the environment in which athletes compete. At a bigger school, where football and other sports are celebrated and enjoyed by hundreds of thousands, there are enough people both to fill the stands and the parking lots. But here, teams rely on students and parents for support. So when the majority of students who plan to venture out to a sporting event never enter the stadium, the atmosphere is significantly diminished. It’s just too bad that a median cannot be reached.
Nicholas Thorne is a junior in Pierson College. His column appears on Wednesdays.