Keith Strudler: Finding The Longhorn Beach
When it comes to big time college sports, there is no shortage of irony and hypocrisy. So this story is neither isolated nor surprising. But at the least, it is explicatory. This is another story about major college football – its excess, its priority, its oblivion. It’s a story about an American pastime that can’t escape its own ambition. And one of poor judgement mixed with tunnel vision.
I’m talking, of course, of the University of Texas Athletic Department’s decision to name Corona as the official beer sponsor of Longhorn Athletics. Corona is, of course, a Mexican beer that markets itself as an escape from the routine. Or as they like to encourage, a chance to find your own beach. As the joke now goes, recently dismissed Texas head coach Charlie Strong is already there. It also seems the beach will be coming to Darrell K. Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium, home of the Longhorn football team. A place where, unlike most college stadiums across the country, beer sales are allowed. In fact, they sold over $3 million in suds last season, which is enough to pay for at least two assistant coaches.
Alcohol sponsors are fairly ubiquitous with sports properties. It would be hard to fathom NASCAR without some sort of beer sponsor. The US Open Tennis tournament feels like an ad for Grey Goose Vodka. That list goes on and on, ranging from high end liquors to beer without carbs. We have long accepted that sporting events – spectator and participatory – are great places to introduce the public to the pleasures of alcohol.
It is also no great secret that university life and drinking are quite often considered complimentary experiences. Such is the theme of pretty much every movie about college life, led by Animal House. Never having attended UT, but growing up in Texas, I can assume that the drinking culture at the University is fairly robust in comparison with other large flagship state universities with big sports and Greek organizations. I apologize for the generalization, but I’ve only got five minutes.
I can also assume that many people at the University would like the change that stereotype – or more specifically, change the actual ramifications of binge drinking on a college campus. For all the sophomoric humor around the college drinking culture, there’s little upside to the normalization of having way too much, way too often. I say this without any intention of moralizing and without a naïve perspective on the historical prevalence of binge drinking at American universities. But I also say this having been involved with higher education most of my adult life and understanding the risk factors of making alcohol seem like a punch line instead of a legalized drug. Universities have taken steps to change that narrative – if for no other reason than the liability. So a beer sponsorship for the University of Texas’s most visible property does feel a bit counterintuitive.
That in itself is enough to critique UT’s decision to make Austin, Corona’s new beach. From a messaging perspective, this dismantles any credibility the University has in changing campus culture. See, there’s your hypocrisy.
Continuing on that front, it’s also hypocritical that the Longhorns will take money from a beer company that’s essentially supported by a) athletes who are often too young to legally drink alcohol, and b) athletes that don’t get paid for helping to facilitate that economic transaction. I don’t know if that’s hypocrisy or irony or both, but it’s not good either way.
Which really brings us to the overall problem here. This beer sponsorship for UT comes because Longhorn Athletics has decided to operate like a business in seemingly all regards – except paying players, of course. In doing so, they’ve taken a sponsorship from what some might term a villain product – and I know it’s not a tobacco company, but still. This helps them do other things, like pay a head football coach $5 million a year while buying out the last football coach’s contract for over $10 million. This should, in theory, help Texas win lots of football games and perhaps a national title, even if that hasn’t happened recently. Perhaps that’s because other schools are engaging in the same practices, which is what we affectionately call the arms race of college sports. That – the unending need to win at all costs – is seemingly more instrumental than basic common sense. Like not having a beer company sponsor 18-year-olds playing amateur football on a university campus.
Of course, this would not be the first hypocrisy of big time college football, a sport which, despite it all, I still adore. I suppose it is truly a drug. Which perhaps makes this sponsorship easier to understand.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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