Duke's Tailgate falls to school’s better judgment

Staff WritersNovember 10, 2010 

  • Unlike Duke, neither N.C. State University nor UNC-Chapel Hill sponsors a tailgate party in which students must show ID to be admitted. Tailgating activities at both universities are less organized than what Duke arranged for its students.

    Both N.C. State and UNC have some guidelines, though, aimed at creating a safe atmosphere. At N.C. State, parking lots don't open until five hours before game time. At UNC, alcohol and open flames are prohibited during on-campus tailgating.

    Pregame tailgating rituals have proven to have tragic consequences. In 2004, two men were shot to death in a parking lot after an argument while tailgating at an N.C. State game.

— "Tailgate," Duke University's officially sanctioned pre-game football party, tried to corral boisterous, beer-drinking college students in a manner that was tolerable to campus administrators.

To no one's surprise, that really couldn't be done.

University officials have canceled Saturday's Tailgate after a teenager was found passed out in a portable toilet during last week's event.

Larry Moneta, Duke's vice president for student affairs, said the teen, whom he estimated to be about 15, was the brother of a student. The teen is fine, Moneta said, but the incident finally put an end to the current incarnation of Tailgate - an event that has long worried the administration.

"At some point you say, 'this particular version is not going to fly,' " Moneta said, adding that a revamped pre-game ritual will be unveiled before the 2011 football season.

Tailgate was held in an on-campus parking lot before home football games. Students did not have to be 21 to attend, but they did need to show a student ID to be admitted. Each student could bring one guest. The event's demise does not affect the less-formal tailgate parties organized by Duke alumni and fans.

On the Duke campus Tuesday afternoon, some students said Tailgate was an out-of-control event with little, if anything, to do with the football games it preceded. But others saw it is a beloved rite of passage, a way to blow off steam after a long week of classes. Some suggested that students might revolt this weekend and hold their own tailgate at another campus location.

"It's a little bit out of control, but students are used to it," said William Brathwaite, a junior from Atlanta. "It's definitely culturally entrenched. So there will be a backlash."

Adding rules

Although the party began spontaneously, the administration became involved in recent years as the event grew bigger. Students set up large stereo systems to blast music, and some wore costumes. Formal guidelines were added in an attempt to make the event run more smoothly, including rules that banned the throwing of beer cans, and standing or sitting on the tops of cars.

This football season marked the introduction of beer limits: each student group could have no more than 30 cases of beer. People walking to the party could carry no more than a six pack.

The beer, mixed with music, school spirit and hormones, created a rowdy atmosphere.

"The tendency is for it to morph into one big mosh pit," said Moneta, estimating that Saturday crowds could range from 300 young people to 2,000. Duke is home to 6,000 undergraduate students.

The university hired emergency medical technicians to monitor the event, as well as a private security company. Duke provided water for the students, as well as plastic cups into which partiers were supposed to pour their beer.

"No expense was spared to make this as safe as we humanly could," Moneta said, noting that the cups were intended to help prevent the throwing of beer-filled cans.

Once they were inside the party's perimeter, drinking students did not have their IDs checked, Moneta said. They were on the honor system.

Chris Brown, a Duke student government vice president who helped organize Tailgate, said the government decided not to challenge the administration's decision to cancel the event.

"We very narrowly escaped some extreme consequences," he said.

The cancellation of Saturday's Tailgate, scheduled before Duke's game against Boston College, effectively ends the tradition as students know it. Duke has one additional home game this season, against UNC-Chapel Hill on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, but Tailgate was not scheduled for the holiday weekend.

What game?

For many students, the party outshined the football game. Brown said the majority of students who attended Tailgates did not go to the games.

Throughout this season, Duke football coach David Cutcliffe has called for increased support from students and fans. Cutcliffe has lauded the small contingent of students who gather in the stands to show their support. He acknowledged them again on Saturday after a 55-48 victory over Virginia.

Cutcliffe said he wasn't involved with the university's decision not to hold Tailgate on Saturday. Asked whether canceling the event would hurt the students' game-day experience, Cutcliffe said that would be up to the students.

"You have to ask them," he said. "Surely there's other things that you can do. I bet you if they want to find a way to get together a little bit, there'll be some crowds gathered."

The canceling of Saturday's event has no effect on the university's more famous sports party, Krzyzewskiville, where students camp out for days to get Duke basketball tickets. Although alcohol is present there as well, K-ville has not traditionally had the same problems as Tailgate, Moneta said.

Staff writers Amy Dunn and Edward G. Robinson III contributed to this report.

matt.ehlers@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4889

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