Tuesday, November 22, 2011

About what happened on Saturday

I didn't bother to hide my excitement here in the leadup to last weekend's Harvard-Yale game in New Haven. Harvard's bid for a perfect Ivy League season--in combination with the Patrick Witt saga--made for one of the more intriguing storylines in recent years, and I was disappointed that I couldn't be there like I am for most Games.

But as my friends were preparing for their tailgates outside Yale Bowl, piling into Lot D as they do in every odd-numbered year, things took an unexpected and tragic turn, one that would turn Harvard's blowout victory into a mere footnote.
A driver of a U-Haul truck carrying beer kegs through a tailgating area before the Yale-Harvard game Saturday suddenly accelerated, fatally striking a 30-year-old Massachusetts woman and injuring two other women, police said.
It's not clear why the driver sped up, New Haven Police spokesman David Hartman said. The truck then crashed into other U-Haul vans in the lot, an open playing field used for pre-game tailgating parties before Yale home games in New Haven. 
Needless to say, when this news first broke on ESPN's College GameDay, my heart leapt up into my throat. The accident took place at the entrance to the aforementioned Lot D, and things struck just a little bit close to home. I tailgate in that lot regularly, and I've even driven a U-Haul truck into it on multiple occasions in the past. When The Game is in New Haven, Lot D becomes a home away from home for me.

Not surprisingly, no word about the identity of the deceased woman was immediately forthcoming, and I was therefore left to worry and hope that none of my close friends were involved. Given how many people I know who fit the "30-year-old Massachusetts woman" description--and who would have been tailgating in that lot--it was a pretty unsettling afternoon, to say the least.

I was relieved to learn that I knew none of the victims (I use that word loosely, as I don't intend to indicate or assume that a crime was committed), and I then shifted my thinking to wondering what the aftermath of the incident might look like. And that, ultimately, is the focus of this post.

It seems inevitable that there will be some sort of policy response from the Yale athletic department, in the form of tailgating restrictions at future Games. There is always pressure on administration officials to "Do Something" in the aftermath of a great tragedy, even if that "Something" would have done little or nothing to prevent the original incident.

The battle lines were very quickly drawn in this story, even before any meaningful details of the matter had been determined. Nearly every article (including the NY Times story cited above) took great pains to mention that the U-Haul truck was "full of kegs", strongly implying that it was a relevant detail in the accident.

Despite the fact that the driver of the truck passed a field sobriety test, and that there are some indications that an equipment malfunction may be to blame, public opinion had already been shaped to the point that the victim's mother--still grieving and trying to sort out the facts--knew only that her daughter had been "hit by a U-Haul full of alcohol". Facts be damned, the Cliff Notes for this tragedy had already been written.

As we try to sort through this incident, one element that won't change is that "U-Haul full of kegs" will have been determined to be the cause of death, and this will be assumed to be relevant. Harvard has already banned both kegs and U-Hauls at its tailgates, and Yale seems almost certain to follow its lead. The lingering question is, will it matter?

Harvard first banned kegs at its tailgates in 2000, while I was a student there. The primary argument that I remember at the time--when keg bans were very much in vogue at Boston-area colleges--was that kegs were a "symbol of binge drinking", and that eliminating them would temper binge drinking. I called bullshit then, and I'm calling bullshit now. If you want a real "symbol of binge drinking", I'll show you a 9-dollar handle of bottom-shelf vodka. Popov was always a favorite; Aristocrat was a winner, too.

The irony of kegs--an irony lost on most administrators--is that while they may indeed have looked like a symbol of binge drinking, they were in fact the administration's best friend. Beer, with its high water content and low alcohol content, is in fact the alcoholic beverage least likely to directly result in alcohol poisoning. The administration should have been doing all they could to encourage the drinking of beer, and to discourage the drinking of cheap wine and rot-gut liquor.

Unsurprisingly to those who knew better, the keg ban was a disaster. In the first year of the keg ban (2002), alcohol poisoning cases skyrocketed, leading to calls from student newspapers to reverse the ban entirely for the next home Game. Some accommodations were indeed made, but not enough to turn back the clock entirely. From what I have learned and witnessed at recent Games in Cambridge, less drinking is happening on-site, and now much more drinking is happening off-site, away from the watchful eyes of Harvard and Boston Police.

Is this outcome safer, or better, for anyone? Almost certainly, it is not. Ironically, the safest outcome for all involved is for these students to drink tons of beer in the immediate presence of dozens of uniformed officers--drinking bottom shelf liquor, or drinking where nobody is watching, is dramatically less safe. But the one thing such a policy does accomplish is a decrease in the likelihood of a "Harvard student dies at tailgate" headline in the newspaper, one like we saw this weekend. Note that it does not dramatically increase the likelihood of a tragic incident--it only changes who gets the blame if and when it occurs.

Ultimately, I am confident (in a pessimistic way) that Yale will end up pursuing some sort of counterproductive policy in the near future, in the name of "Doing Something". Tragically, "Doing Something" very often means "making the problem worse" or "creating a new problem". That's how we ended up with the TSA in this country, radiating and/or groping all of us as we try to board airplanes. Are the airplanes--or U.S. citizens--any safer as a result? Who cares? We "Did Something", and that's our job as administrators--results be damned.

I think that the memory of the deceased woman deserves better than this kind of kneejerk reaction, just as I think that the memory of the 9/11 victims deserves better than the disaster that is the TSA. I do think that we need to examine just why it is that college students seem so intent on drinking to excess, and blaming the venue (Lot D) or the method (U-Hauls full of kegs) doesn't do anything to address the issue at the heart of the matter.

A woman is dead, and it is a tragedy. But we will only compound that tragedy if we use her memory as an excuse to Do Something Stupid. We may all look at this case and assume that "U-Haul full of kegs" was the problem, and that we need to eliminate U-Hauls full of kegs. But would the tragedy here--or the inherent risks involved, or the response to the tragedy--have been any different if these women had been hit by a Chevy Suburban full of bottom shelf vodka? What if it had been a Ford Taurus full of hot dog buns? The media treatment would certainly be different, even though it's easy to argue that the tragedy at its core is no different.

Here's hoping that sanity prevails here, and that we can all in fact learn something and make real progress, rather than spinning our wheels for the benefit of newspaper headlines. Unfortunately, history indicates that the "Do Something" outcome is infinitely more likely. Sad.

[NY Times]

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