A newly formed task force takes on the game-day experience

By TERESA KILLIAN TATE

Western Carolina leaders would like to see more people enjoy tailgating on campus, and to that end, a WCU task force is revisiting how to improve the university’s tailgating policy. A new model for tailgating was implemented in 2008 to address concerns surfacing at WCU common to collegiate tailgating events nationwide – trashed parking lots, broken glass, vandalism, fights, and underage and excessive drinking. News reports in recent years in North Carolina chronicle how dangerous tailgating can be: A shooting at a tailgating event before a North Carolina State University home game in 2004 left two men dead and an NCSU student incarcerated for life, and last year, a teenager was found unconscious in a portable toilet after tailgating at a Duke University game. The latter led to cancellation of a student tailgate event at an upcoming game and a university commitment to create a new football game-day celebration that supports student-athletes, is safe and healthy and showcases pride.

The 2008 policy at WCU limited tailgating to three hours before kickoff, prohibited glass beverage containers and specified student and alcohol-free areas. In addition, the policy implemented a new permit process for student areas in which alcoholic beverages were allowed. Students who paid for permits for an 11-by-12-foot space signed that they were aware of regulations, such as making sure all trash and debris were removed from an area. They agreed to be responsible for ensuring those consuming alcohol within their area had proper identification.

Fees for the student permits, which began at $25 per game or $120 for the season, covered the cost of additional security and assisted with towing expenses when clearing lots for tailgating. Only 77 percent of available permits were purchased in 2008, but as the cost of permits decreased to $15 per game or $50 for the season, the percentage sold climbed to 95 percent in 2009 and 100 percent in 2010. This year, no permit fees will be collected. In addition, the university has sponsored more programming within the student tailgating area, such as contests and outdoor activities.

Sam Miller, vice chancellor of student affairs, said the number of tailgating and associated alcohol-related problems has significantly declined since implementation of the policies in 2008. Miller received a letter from the N.C. Department of Crime Control and Public Safety’s Alcohol Law Enforcement Division commending WCU for efforts to control underage consumption on campus with the new tailgating system. The letter noted that 95 percent of all violent crimes committed on college campuses are alcohol-related. Miller said the goal is to offer both a celebratory and safe tailgating experience. “We want our students to learn the life skills they need to live healthy and productive lives. The research is clear that alcohol is a major risk factor for traditional-age college students. For students who choose to drink, learning how to drink responsibly – to know their limits and how to avoid binge drinking – is an important life skill,” he said.

With tailgating concerns receding at WCU, this fall is an opportune time to revisit the policy. Alumni have raised concerns that the student tailgating lot closest to the stadium seems almost empty at times, and have questioned if that lot is, indeed, the best for students. Kenny Messer ’86, former president of the WCU Alumni Association and past-president of the Catamount Club board of directors, is among the proponents of changes to the existing policy. Messer said he and others feel strongly that students should not have had to pay for tailgating permits and suggests reallocating which parking lots are assigned to which groups. Tailgating is not only an important part of the game-day experience, but also crucial to connecting students past and present to the university, he said. “It is a big, big issue among alumni, and I believe it is a big issue among the students,” he said. “We’ve got to change the perception of our student life on campus and help our students form a lasting attachment to the university. Tailgating is one of the many mechanisms that can help students form the kind of attachments that will bring them back to Western Carolina year after year.”

Lauren Gray, a senior majoring in public relations and marketing from New London, said she misses the days when tailgating was less restrictive and better attended. “It brought more people together, and you could really feel the WCU spirit and pride,” said Gray. “The policy definitely needs to be changed if any kind of spirit is to be rekindled here at WCU among students.”  T.J. Eaves, a senior from Hamlet and president of the Student Government Association, said, however, his sense was that many students felt safer with the tailgating policy. As a nondrinker, he appreciates that student tailgating at WCU does not revolve solely around alcohol. “Some students want to be able to drink at tailgating events, but at the same time, students do not want it to be out of control,” said Eaves, a task force member. “It is time to look at how to improve the student tailgating experience. On the task force, we hope to investigate the pros and cons of different policy changes. The biggest thing is getting the tradition of tailgating and the feeling of Catamount pride at the tailgating event.”

The task force – with members including faculty, staff, administrators, students, alumni and Catamount Club members – will spend the 2011 football season reviewing current WCU tailgating and game-day policies and procedures and studying those at other institutions, especially other Southern Conference and University of North Carolina institutions. A recent report showed a range of tailgating policies exist within the UNC system alone: NCSU limits tailgating to five hours before a game and  UNC Charlotte to two-and-a-half hours. Pembroke limits tailgating with alcoholic beverages to two parking lots and uses age-identification bracelets. UNC Chapel Hill does not allow grills or alcoholic beverages in tailgating on campus parking lots and encourages fans to attend a tailgating-alternative event called Tar Heel Town.

In addition to studying emerging best practices, members will participate in the tailgating experience at fall 2011 home football games and will travel to see firsthand what game day is like at other schools. Chancellor David Belcher, at the group’s first meeting in late August, gave the task force its official charge, asking the members to keep in mind core values of safety, responsible behavior, a positive game-day experience for all, and the projection of a positive image of the university. Belcher also urged the members to propose any amendments to the tailgating policy their review might prompt in time for consideration and approval by the WCU Board of Trustees at its March 2012 meeting to ensure sufficient time for those changes to be implemented prior to the 2012 season.

A.J. Grube, chair of the task force and head of the business administration and law and sport management department, said the task force is seeking comments about how to improve tailgating. “The policy cleared up some of the issues, but maybe we’ve become too stringent,” said Grube. “There has to be some middle ground – more flexibility for students, Catamount Club members and the community at-large – while still maintaining the safety that we have now. I would like to see a bigger tailgating crowd at WCU. It’s a way to build community – a way to build a family.”

Bill Studenc MPA ’10 contributed to this story.