Monday, May 26, 2008

College Drinking Is Out of Control

by Dr. Boyce Watkins

I recently noticed that the Duke Lacrosse team, the same guys caught in the middle of the rape fiasco that occurred a couple of years ago, were knocked out of the NCAA tournament. The upset by Johns Hopkins ended a season that will surely allow these young men to be remembered as heroes. Granted, their comeback from the depths of despair after the rape scandal in 2006 is quite remarkable. Also, Duke is a great school, a place that my little brother was planning to attend. However, we might want to put the “heroism” of Duke University athletes into perspective, for we don’t want to get carried away.

I was quite vocal about the Duke lacrosse situation in 2006, and I don’t regret one word of my commentary. When a young black student at another university accused the athletes of rape at a party, there was quite a bit of legitimate racial tension in the Raleigh-Durham area, as well as across the nation. I did not stand up in defense of the young black woman’s story, nor did I accuse the athletes of anything that was not yet proven in the court of law. I wasn’t there when the event allegedly took place, since I don’t hang out at drunken stripper parties.

What concerned me about the situation was not the lies that may have been told by the victim. I assume she was lying, since she disappeared and her story fell apart like a Sean Hannity argument. Perhaps she was paid or threatened to remain quiet, but we will never know what happened. I also had no problem with the punishment of Mike Nifong, the District Attorney who seemed to presume guilt before actually proving it.

What I had a problem with is that everyone continues to miss an important piece of this picture. The athletes on the Duke Lacrosse team are NOT great American heroes. At best, their behavior was that of drunken thugs who were fortunate enough to be able to hire good attorneys to get them out of trouble. I have friends in “the hood” who behave this way, some of whom are still in prison for things they didn’t do. There is a Bill Cosby argument to be made which states that staying out of trouble means avoiding situations most likely to get you into trouble.
Heroes don’t drink till they puke every weekend. Heroes don’t hold parties with booze and strippers till all hours of the night. After all was said and done, I hope that these men were not given the green light to continue the same egregious behavior that got them into trouble in the first place. That would be sending the wrong message to these young men.

But the kids on the Duke Lacrosse team are not alone. I find myself consistently shocked at some of the behavior I see on many college campuses. While we consider college campuses to be havens of the elite, I can simply say that I know men who’ve gone to prison who don’t behave in such a deplorable fashion. The fact that individuals like George Bush are products of this tradition explains a lot about the brilliant policies of our great nation. It also explains why Bill O’Reilly has a loyal audience. I can’t use this culture to explain the drug abuse and illegal behavior of the caricature known as Rush Limbaugh, since he never graduated from college. In fact, according to Rush’s own mother, “he flunked everything, even a modern ballroom dancing class”. I’m honestly not surprised.

After spending my life on major college campuses for the last 18 years, I can only ask this question: Who IN THE HELL decided that it was normal to drink every weekend until you pass out? Who decided that this behavior is simply a “part of college life”, with kids not being taught the first thing about personal responsibility? I’m sorry, but in the real world, people who engage in excessive alcohol consumption destroy their livers, are far more likely to get raped, are more likely to be caught in violence, are at risk of driving and killing their best friends and put the rest of us in jeopardy. I’m not cool with that.

The U.S. Surgeon General has identified binge drinking on college campuses as a major health problem. I have middle aged alcoholic friends who took their first drink on a college campus. What concerns me the most is that the parents of these students and administrators around them are not stepping up to the plate and forcing these kids to chill out. Even well-intended administrators are ham strung by overzealous parents who believe their children can do no wrong. Perhaps they should call Bill Cosby in on this one, since there is a lot of bad parenting going on.

I know cops and prosecutors who claim that parents are one of the primary reasons that arrested college students don’t usually learn lessons from their audacious behavior. The next time I hear someone criticizing parenting in the black community, I am going to tell them to look to our elite campuses as the greatest examples of irresponsible parenting. I’m no bible thumper and I’m surely not a conservative, but I grew up with good role models who taught me the importance of common sense.

When I read about the Duke Lacrosse party, that is what I saw: another episode of college campus culture teaching young men and women to be comfortable behaving as menaces to society. Over 1,700 college students die each year from unintentional alcohol-related accidents. Roughly half of all college women are sexually assaulted during college, with at least half of these incidents involving alcohol. Individuals who consistently promote this kind of behavior on campus are no heroes of mine. But I don’t blame the students, I blame their parents and the adults who refuse to tell them the truth. If my son were at that party engaging in this kind of embarrassing behavior, I would (keeping it honest, in the words of my grandmother) “whoop his black ass”. Only men who host drunken stripper parties have to worry about strippers accusing them of rape.

I grow weary of appearing on shows in which I am asked to defend the behavior of black males, when I see students on college campuses behaving in ways that should make their families ashamed. I long for the day that a man like Bill O’Reilly takes a break from judging the values of the black community and turns that same self-righteous eye toward the Ivy League and private university thugs-in-training who think it’s ok to begin the quest toward alcoholism right after freshman orientation. But of course, the racism and elitism of America lead us to only see flaws in the oppressed. That is what my book, “What if George Bush were a Black Man?” was all about.

So, my tough love for the lacrosse players at Duke University is this: Congratulations on coming back from your setback. You were lucky, because prisons are full of men who never got a second chance. I’m sorry the stripper you hired lied to the police after your liquor and stripper-fest was over. But you shouldn’t be hiring strippers at the age of 19, and you should never have been in that situation. Now that we’ve had this conversation, you are free to go out in the world and truly become heroes.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Finance Professor at Syracuse University and author of “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About College”. For more information, please visit