Beginning Sept. 28, Southern Miss crowds, like this one at last Saturday’s home game with Alcorn, will have the opportunity to purchase beer and light wine.

Interesting to watch how the Mississippi universities have handled the issue of beer and light wine sales at athletic events – from diving in head first, to slowly sliding into the water, to, well, staying dry.

Staying dry, that is, if you believe any college athletic event in Mississippi has ever been watched by fans in complete sobriety. And if you believe that, well, you clearly haven’t walked down through the stands from the press box, long after the game is over and your deadline is busted, and seen the empty pint bottles and beer cans strewn throughout the stadium.

Universities – not just in Mississippi but elsewhere – have looked the other way or not looked at all as fans have smuggled their stash into stadia for as long as the games have been played. Prohibition never worked – in sports or real life.

Rick Cleveland

From this vantage point, the hypocrisy has been almost laughable. There have been no beer or wine sales. Bags and purses have been checked at gates coming into the stadium. And yet, big donors, in the luxury suites, have openly consumed beer, whiskey and wine from air-conditioned comfort. Even lockers are provided for safekeeping.

So, if you’re keeping score, Southern Miss will be the first to sell beer and light wine products at its football games, beginning with a Sept. 28 game against UTEP. Ole Miss will follow suit when Texas A & M comes to Oxford Oct. 19. Mississippi State has no plans to sell alcohol at athletic events during this school year. Ole Miss also will sell beer and light wine at basketball and baseball games. Southern Miss has not announced whether it will sell at basketball games and baseball games. The educated guess here is that USM will.

You may remember the Southeastern Conference passed legislation allowing alcohol sales at athletic events last May. Since then, Ole Miss, Texas A & M, LSU, Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas and Vanderbilt have all announced plans to sell spirits at games. That’s seven SEC members who are selling alcohol. The seven others are not. Many appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach and will base a future decision on how it works at the schools who are taking the dive this season.

My guess: When the 2020 football season kicks off, all 14 SEC schools will be selling beer and light wine at games.

They might as well – for several reasons, not the least of which is the revenue it will provide.

Secondly, people who want to drink at sporting events are going to find a way, whether they smuggle it into the stadium, binge drink before the game or decide to leave a one-sided or boring game to get a cold, refreshing drink.

Southern Miss athletic director Jeremy McClain knows all this because he has experienced it. At Troy, where he served as athletic director for nearly four years before returning to USM, beer was available for purchase at ballgames.

Jeremy McClain

“Honestly, we had no problems at all, no increase in alcohol-related incidents,” McClain said. “If anything, there were less than before. Our fans appreciated it. We made some money.”

At Troy, McClain said, the athletic department made in the neighborhood of $100,000 annually on beer sales. He expects that figure to be larger at Southern Miss.

Sales will be closely regulated, McClain said. There will be no sales after the third quarter. Beer and light wine will be sold in aluminum cans and aluminum bottles. No customer will be allowed to buy more than two products at a time. And, yes, IDs will be closely checked.

Reaction from Golden Eagle fans, McClain said, has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

“I’d say 95 percent positive,” McClain said. “I think even the people who don’t plan to drink understand that it just makes sense for us. It’s an amenity that our fans appreciate.”

And USM, which doesn’t get a $43 million check from its conference every year, needs all the revenue it can make – and then some.

Ole Miss interim director Keith Carter similarly said that Rebel fan reaction to a beer-at-games announcement a week ago has been “largely positive.”

Keith Carter

“This isn’t a decision that was made in haste or without due diligence,” Carter said. “We’ve taken our time, studied all the different factors involved. As you know, we won’t start until mid-October so that gives us another six weeks to make sure when we do it, we do it the right way.

“But I just think this was an inevitable decision,” Carter continued. “I think you’re going to see more and more teams in our league and elsewhere go to it. It comes down to each school to make the call on what’s best for them and we just felt like this was the time for us.”

At State, athletic director John Cohen said the school is taking “a wait-and-see approach.”

The decision has been made, Cohen said, not to move forward with alcohol sales at any sporting event during this school year.

And perhaps State will stick with that decision in the future. Don’t bet on it.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.