By Jennifer Gunnels
Two Division I schools are using grant money from an NCAA program to improve fan behavior through education against alcohol abuse.
Programs at Minnesota and Missouri are showing signs of effectiveness in their early stages, thanks to seed money from the CHOICES program that the NCAA has been administering for two decades.
In 1991, Anheuser-Busch, recognizing the opportunities that athletics affords to educate people about alcohol abuse, endowed the NCAA with $2.5 million to create a grant program to help NCAA member institutions and conferences integrate athletics into larger campus-wide alcohol education efforts.
The program, called CHOICES, began awarding grants in 1991 in various amounts and for a variety of projects. In 1998, the NCAA narrowed the scope of the projects into a three-year cycle in which institutions receive a maximum of $15,000 the first year, $10,000 the second year and $5,000 the third year. Today, more than $5.7 million in awards has been given to 229 member institutions.
“These are intended to be ‘seed grants’ for campuses to do something new or reinvigorate something that already exists, and then institutionalize it so that it can continue after the grant money is gone,” said Mary Wilfert, NCAA associate director of education services/health and safety and administrator of the CHOICES grant program.
CHOICES is among several programs the NCAA offers as part of its comprehensive effort to enhance student-athlete health and safety. Judging by the number of applicants it attracts, it may be among the most popular for member schools. While there are scores of success stories, two programs currently in their second cycle this year (Minnesota and Missouri) are unique for focusing their efforts on fan behavior at athletics events.
Since 1982, the Minnesota Golden Gophers have been playing their home football games at the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis, where alcohol was permitted to be sold. As the school prepared to welcome its football team and its fans back to campus in September 2009 with the opening of TCF Bank Stadium (where alcohol is not sold), the game-day experience was a primary concern for campus leaders.
Minnesota's Rooter Club (the football spirit group) packs the stands this season.
“There was a desire to transition our fans into what a game-day atmosphere should be about, focusing on spirit and sportsmanship and behaving in a ‘Golden’ way,” said Mandi Watkins Soderlund, assistant director of student unions and activities and advisor of the “We Are…Minnesota” student organization.
The Golden Gophers Making Golden CHOICES program has three primary objectives:
A key element of these efforts has been the We Are…Minnesota spirit initiative, aimed at promoting positive fan behavior and creating a more unified student body.
The school initiated a Welcome Week Pride and Spirit event for first-year students during orientation week to teach them school songs and cheers. The students were given megaphones, briefed on expectations regarding sportsmanship and fan behavior, and invited onto the football field to form a block “M” for a class photo.
Another successful aspect of the We Are…Minnesota initiative has been the Gopher Greeter program. Volunteer student ambassadors act as the welcoming crew at all home football, men’s basketball and men’s ice hockey games. The Gopher Greeters answer questions, hand out promotional items and enhance the atmosphere of school spirit. Last year, 100 percent of participants in the program reported an increased sense of school pride and spirit.
“At the University of Minnesota, our fan base isn’t as strong as some other institutions in the country, so we’re in a mode right now of getting our students to move past apathy and into excitement about the game. We think when they are excited and take pride in what is happening, sportsmanship improves,” Soderlund said.
Minnesota's Gopher Greeters.
While football was the main focus in the first year of the program, the school has now expanded its efforts to include men’s basketball and men’s ice hockey. Soderlund says that although the men’s ice hockey team has a faithful and spirited following, the fan culture around the sport has room for improvement.
“We want to see our fans cheering more for our team instead of against the other team. We’re being careful in trying not to alienate our fans with the idea that these are just a few goody-two-shoes students that are trying to come in and change the entire culture of hockey. We’re taking small steps and trying to teach our fans new cheers and encouraging them to be more creative about how they cheer and what they cheer,” Soderlund said.
One requirement of CHOICES grants is that students be involved in the program’s development, implementation and evaluation. Soderlund says that the We Are…Minnesota spirit initiative has become an entirely student-run organization with ever-growing ideas about how to enhance the student cheering section at home athletics events.
“I am absolutely the advisor and the students are running the show,” Soderlund said.
In addition to spirit initiatives, students have also been involved in peer education programs. The CHOICES grant has allowed the university to enhance its alcohol education program by involving student-athletes to help deliver messages to other student-athletes, Greeks and first-year students.
Baseline data were collected during the first year of the grant cycle, and while comparative data will not be compiled until the end of the second year, a campus-wide survey has shown an improvement in overall student awareness about alcohol-related issues.
In a 2007 campus-wide survey, 54 percent of Minnesota students reported they would be “very likely” to call 911 when someone “passes out” due to alcohol/drug use and they are unable to wake the individual. In 2010, that rose to 61 percent. In 2007, 17.6 percent of students reported driving while intoxicated. In 2010, that dropped to 13.6 percent. Campus leaders believe these improvements are due in part to programs made possible by the CHOICES grant.
Another requirement of CHOICES grants is that the programs demonstrate collaboration among various campus organizations, including athletics. The Minnesota CHOICES program involves constituents from the athletics office, student affairs and health services.
“We focused on building those relationships in the first 18 months of this grant, and that has been key. This will be a continued partnership because it affects all of us. Alcohol abuse affects fan behavior, which in turn affects the student experience and the entire campus community,” Soderlund said.
While Minnesota is attempting to establish its on-campus, game-day atmosphere, the University of Missouri is using its CHOICES grant funds to address negative game-day behaviors that had become part of the tailgating tradition.
“We were having such problems during tailgating that we felt something potentially disastrous could happen,” said Kim Dude, Director of the Wellness Resource Center, who set about creating a fan behavior task force to address the issue.
The mission of the task force was two-fold: first, to deal with problem areas through new policies, and second, to create a marketing campaign that would accentuate the positive fan behaviors that were happening on game day. After the school’s athletics director and chancellor closed down the most problematic student tailgating area, a CHOICES grant allowed the group to focus on the second part of its mission.
Dude says the project was a partnership with the athletics department from the very beginning.
“While I was meeting with the director of athletics and having him sign off on this, he literally said, ‘Would it help if I agreed to match it?’ ” Dude said. “After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I of course said that, yes, that would be extremely helpful. So we literally had twice as much money each year. Had we not gotten the funding and support of the athletics department, I think we would still be at square one.”
The Missouri program is centered upon a marketing campaign that uses signage, promotional items and other messaging to educate fans as to the accurate drinking norms. T-shirts, cups, magnets and other items state statistics such as: “87 percent of Mizzou tailgaters have a negative opinion of fans who are rude to the opposing team” and “most Missouri tailgaters have four or fewer drinks while tailgating.” Program leaders hope educating fans with these statistics will empower them to make positive choices during tailgating activities.
The program also partnered with Sustain Mizzou, a student-run environmental group on campus, to address littering at tailgating areas, a behavior that Dude says not only negatively affects the campus environment but also gives the impression of excessive drinking.
Student volunteers and graduate assistants travel with Dude through tailgate areas on a black and gold golf cart to pass out the promotional items, along with bags for recycling cans and bottles. After the game, student volunteers from Sustain Mizzou pick up the recycling bags, along with sandwich boards around the tailgate area with the We Are Mizzou messaging.
Another aspect of the Missouri CHOICES program has been the creation of mizzoutailgating.com. The website aims to educate fans on game-day policies, while promoting the positive aspects of tailgating with information such as tailgating recipes, tailgating games and photos taken around the tailgate area.
While data are still being collected for the second year of the CHOICES grant program at Missouri, a survey by the Wellness Resource Center has found that the binge-drinking rate among students dropped from 60 percent in 2004-05 to 44.5 percent in 2009-10. The director of the Wellness Resource Center presented alcohol-education programs to more than 400 student-athletes during the first year of the program. Leaders of the initiative at Missouri have been pleased so far with the widespread exposure and impact of the We Are…Mizzou messaging across campus.
“It takes a lot of patience and creativity, and thankfully, in this case, the support of the NCAA and our athletics department. It is difficult to change hard-and fast-traditions, and tailgating is a hard-and-fast tradition on our campus, and has been for many, many years. It’s an uphill battle, but we’re making progress and moving in the right direction,” Dude said.