A look at UK’s attempt to change tailgate culture without taking away from the fun

Students tailgate at ‘the bowl’ prior to the game against the Louisiana Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday, September 5, 2015 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Taylor Pence | Staff File Photo

Rick Childress

In an attempt to change student tailgate culture and better enforce its alcohol policy, UK is trying to push student tailgating into an enclosed and more easily monitored setting.

The Bowl, UK’s historically wild tailgate zone next to the Blue Courts on Cooper Drive, is no more. Instead, starting this Saturday for UK’s first home football game, students groups and students who want to tailgate on campus are being directed to the fenced-in Pieratt Field, the field also bordering Cooper that is located behind the Johnson Center.

UK officials and leading students have dubbed the changes “a trial run” as the actual plan is still plagued with questions and concerns that can seemingly be answered by trial, error and student feedback.

“You’re no longer going to be able to roll in with your 30-pack (of beer),” said Dean of Students Nick Kehrwald. “That’s not the kind of experience that we’re trying to design.”

The plan

The plan, Kehrwald said, is to design a four-hour-long “gameday experience” in a space that any student can feel comfortable in, and can help UK better enforce its on-campus alcohol policy.

On one end of the field, any registered student organizations can reserve a space a few weeks prior to the game and invite a maximum of 250 guests; a list of those guests must be submitted to UK, Kehrwald said. When those guests arrive, they’ll receive wristbands, and if the guest is over 21, they can bring six, 12-ounce cans of beer or equivalent in wine coolers or other spirits. No glass bottles or containers will be permitted. The space will open four hours and 30 minutes before kickoff, and will close a half-hour before kickoff for cleanup.

Kehrwald said the reason behind the changes is two part— for safety and for inclusivity.

Keeping everyone responsible for bringing their own alcohol might mitigate some of the liabilities that come with one group providing alcohol for multiple students, Kehrwald said, and on the fenced-in field, UK officials can much more easily make sure that only of-age students are drinking responsibly.

“Mistakes happen in college, in my opinion,” said Nima Mahmoodi, the President of UK’s InterFraternity Council.

He said he felt that in the old location, students were more likely to make mistakes like underage drinking, which, if seen by authorities, could have legal ramifications for a student later in life.

“That was a problem in the Bowl,” Mahmoodi said. “I don’t know if you’ve been in the bowl for a Caturday, but it’s very visible.”

Drew Smith, the Assistant Provost for Health and Wellness, said the changes are also to keep students from binge-drinking or drinking in ways that might be harmful.

“The majority of our students aren’t drinking to the point of harm to themselves or others during these events,” Smith said. “But that’s not what they’re seeing because historically they’ve seen, in a very concentrated area, a lot of alcohol consumption.”

For inclusivity, Smith said that in the past there was a perception that only students involved with Greek organizations were welcome in the Bowl. This year, he said he hopes all students, whether or not they’re in Greek life or any other student organization, will feel welcome.

Mahmoodi said he hopes the changes will help erode the perception that “the Greek community and the non-Greek community are separate.”

“In reality they really aren’t,” he said. “There’s always so many opportunities where Greek individuals are trying to work with non-Greek individuals.”

For those not involved in a student organization, or not in a student organization that wants to have a tailgate, Smith said at the other end of the field they are having “the all-student experience.”

At the first home game Saturday, the all-student experience will see Bourbon and Toulouse serving 500 meals, Steel City Pops will “provide frosty desserts,” students can compete on inflatables and the first 200 students through the gate will get a free ticket to the football game, Smith said. Students are also allowed to bring one guest into the area.

Service animals will be the only animals permitted within the gates.

“We’ll have signs,” Smith said.

The concerns

Multiple student organizations have said in the past that the new tailgating plan may result in some unintended consequences.

During the Student Government Association’s Senate meeting on Wednesday, SGA Vice President Noor Ali told the senate that UK had asked her, President Michael Hamilton and the Student Activities Board for advice on the event.

“We gave them our input, expecting to get more input back,” Ali told the senate. But she said there was no follow up meetings, and the plans that had been shown to SGA were very preliminary. “SGA did not support it. We were definitely brought to the table and we answered questions and gave them feedback, but that was in the middle of July.”

“I don’t think that there is this idea that the university has gotten this design perfectly,” Kehrwald said. “This is also part of a broader project to look at how we design this space. What we’re rolling out right now for the Fall ’18 semester is sort of a certain prototype or design, but that could change based on student feedback.”

Mahmoodi stressed that the changes were not a decision made by the Interfraternity Council, but a decision made by the administration that the IFC is going to comply with.

“We did not have a part in making these decisions, we were just relayed the information, and we were asked for advice as student leaders,” Mahmoodi said.  

A question that Kehrwald said they “spent a lot of time with” is the worry that student groups who are upset with the changes may decide to move their tailgates to off-campus locations that are farther from university oversight and enable them to have a wilder and potentially not-as-safe tailgate.

“Do I think that students will potentially find a different space to do that?” Kehrwald said. “Potentially. But I also don’t think that the university has to endorse that.”

Mahmoodi said he also is concerned that traditional tailgates may move to a place that is less safe.

“It can happen, I can’t say that it won’t,” he said. “I can say whatever I want but I don’t make the decision for another 2,999 people (inside the fraternity system). I can relay whatever I want based on what the administration tells me but it’s up to that organization to make a decision.”

“There is some safety here, but there’s not as much safety off-campus. It’s more so the fact that you cannot contain a lot of the things that happen off campus. Whereas on campus you have a lot more police presence and administration presence for preventing some things.”

Mahmoodi also said that many fraternities were worried about their liability in an event where someone from outside their tailgate caused a scene “that is detrimental to the chapter” inside that fraternity’s tailgate.

“The concern is: What if that liability falls on us?” Mahmoodi said. “Especially if they’re not on our guest list.”

But he said some of these concerns may not be ameliorated until the event has been done a few times, and UK has more data to work with.

“I think there’s some concern that this takes away from the fun,” Kehrwald said. “The university is trying to support creating a fun environment and again we’re trying to encourage students to participate in this event in general and go to athletic events.”