Updated: Jan 29
At 2:23 a.m. on Aug. 20, the last Tuesday of summer break, a metal monster bulldozed down the tracks that run parallel to Crescent and perpendicular to both State Street and University Avenue. A howl whistled through the streets that have quite the reputation amongst the students of the University of Kentucky.
The vibrations of the howl bounced by all the cheap Christmas lights hung on porches and off windows with Greek letter flags behind them, eventually finding its way past three Lexington Police cruisers, whose presence was being felt sitting in the empty lot on the corner of State and Elizabeth.
I don’t know what the police were doing there that night. The whistle was the only real noise heard besides the constant hum of warm weather crickets. The block wasn’t alive with the usual beat it has on any given weekend of the school year. Perhaps the memories of last year’s game against Florida, when hundreds of Wildcat fans flipped a white Volvo, are what inspired the police presence. After that infamous riot, it seems Lex PD has made that abandoned lot its home base in the war against UK tailgate culture— which is absolutely absurd.
But absurdity is vogue nowadays.
School is back in session and the energy can be felt in the breath on campus. The beginning of the year brings its own energetic atmosphere that makes one wish college life could last forever. Friends are reuniting and laughing, everyone still has clean clothes and football is back. However, amongst the old Kentucky off-campus homes, tailgate culture tragically sits in limbo.
I have to be honest, I’m not really a good student journalist. Being a good student journalist would imply that I studied an Associated Press stylebook and I abide by laws that have guided the news for decades. I’ve only taken one journalism class. In that class Professor Jen Smith, hot off the Wildcat football beat, told us that journalists’ first obligation is to the truth. So, while this story might not be a respectable piece of journalism, at least it is the truth, which can be hard to find these days.
Skill aside, I do like to think I have done some decent reporting. During the first week of classes I got a text from an editor and either out of respect or necessity, she asked if I wanted to continue my role as a student journalist with KRNL. When I told her I was working on a story of how UK’s drinking rules reflect the socioeconomic conditions in Kentucky and that I was thousands of words in, she sent me a very nice message back saying, “Hey Ryan we actually already had someone write that story :/ I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were writing it!”
Who knew such an everyday text could inspire the sympathy of passions that followed? I had been thinking about this story all summer and, as foolish as it seems, was emotionally invested. Luckily there aren’t any criteria to tell someone you’re a writer so I could still talk to sources but I needed to get in the stadium to see for myself.
I found myself inside a Commonwealth Stadium that was without fans but not empty. The team had just taken the field to practice by the time I got seated in a secluded location. The players warmed up to the bass-heavy hip hop that was playing throughout the stadium. The team looked healthy and was performing well.
But I wasn’t there to cover the team; plenty of Kernel journalists do that extensively. My goal was to try to find a way to get into the parts of the stadium where patrons were permitted to drink openly. The first target was the Lexus Lounge but the doors were very much locked and maintenance workers who might ask questions were all around. I made my observations and dipped; it was time for my next task.
Since a press pass wasn’t going to be handed to me, I went looking for the holy grail. Earlier I was able to dig up information saying that those with passes could pick them up between gates 10 and 11, so that’s where I went. My journey to find a pass eventually led me up a staircase to the press box, past a communications director setting up a greeting table and into a lovely carpeted room. Any reporter covering the Wildcats is blessed, the press box seemed to me to be more of a private suite than it was a place for journalists to work. It’s hard to differentiate the room for the writers from the rooms for the wealthy.
Doors with donor names on them lined the long the hallways of the private parts of the Commonwealth, bringing a sense of irony to the original name of the stadium. I wandered these walkways endlessly looking for anything that could be hidden in this luxurious maze. Being in such a pristine aroma made me think of the conditions of the classroom I was in earlier that week.
The basement of the Funkhouser building is not a place you’ll see on the SeeBlue university tour. The grey plastic that lines the room where the wall meets the floor is missing at points, exposing the original red brick. The room smells almost exclusively of must, mold, ink and old books. The projector speaker works a minority amount of time and water drips from the ceilings on rainy days. Regardless of the room, an English professor teaches American literature with the same passion as an employee who enjoys all the resources of a well-funded liberal arts college.
The contrast between the two places makes one ponder the priority of the school. How is it that an area made for established professionals is immaculate compared to the rooms students are paying to be receiving their education in? It seems all the big donors forgot about the little basement classrooms.
The press passes were nowhere to be seen, reminding me of my lack of professionalism. While I didn’t secure a pass, I had gained valuable information. As I walked out of the stadium, I saw a player in his practice jersey and a coach in a Nike sweatsuit trying to get into the stadium. They were on a phone apologizing for being late. Being the team player I am, I let the coach know about a cracked door I saw. With a suspicious smirk, he said, “Good eye, kid” and went it. Maybe the team does need the students.
Walking back from the stadium, towards the Johnson Center, I came across what remained from the battleground of past tailgate culture, the Bowl.
I remember the Bowl. It was a beautiful place if you don’t think that every student who sips a beer should be labeled a sinner. Going to the Bowl was a time for the very private Greek Life community to come together with the campus to celebrate the Wildcats. When I was a young Bowl attendee, I had just joined my fraternity and my first trip to the soon-to-be hollowed grounds was set to take place on a beautiful day. As the sun rose over Woodland Glen III on the first Caturday of 2017, I was finishing steaming my Vineyard Vines polo and cleaning the lens of my matte black Vans sunglasses. I was going to look sick. But midway through my morning routine, as I was blaring DJ Envy’s “Text Ur Number (feat. DJ Sliink & Fetty Wap)” my inner astrological signs began to sense that the vibe in the room was off. I was able to feel that my roommate, who was not a frat star like myself, had slipped into a deep depression because he was without plans for game day. I felt for the first time the power of the Bowl. It was then I turned to him, dried his tears and said, “Don’t worry, just come to the Bowl. It’ll be tight.”
And tight it was.
It is at this point in the story a most tragic truth must be addressed. Freshmen and sophomores with whom we share our campus have no memory of the bowl. Sure, they’ve heard stories and seen pictures, but they never experienced the place for what it was.
They never stood on the grass hill that sits in between Cooper Street and the UK Tennis facilities. It wasn’t much but it was ours. Students would go there before UK’s home games to enjoy a glimpse of what many consider to be a typical student gameday experience. Over the grassy knoll, SEC tailgate classics blasted from blown-out speakers over the constant commotion. The run-off water from Cooper Street always settled in The Bowl, leading to a wet sloppiness in its turf. It was here where we laughed too hard, yelled too loud, sang too passionate and lived too openly.
It was a place you could tell a crush your feelings and then the next day blame it on the moment. Boisterous tough guys were there to curse or punch at to get a rush of adrenaline to remind you of life outside of our passive world. Couples publicly argued and displayed their affection. Yes, the bowl was a cesspool of bad decisions, but it was ours. It was a place to be unapologetically human. At the end of the week, after countless mundane minutes of classes, we had somewhere to go where we could forget about the unstable job market we were about to jump into with mountains of debt we’ve been incurring.
But the Bowl was taken away.
It wasn’t replaced either; the university tried to have its manufactured Student Gameday Zone, but it was a disaster. No students wanted to show up, wait in line and sign into a supervised tailgate. Honestly, I had more fun taking calculus exams than I did at the Gameday Zone. It seemed like the tide was in our favor; it was obvious the university ruined tailgating for its students and the expectation was that they’d find a better way, but in the fall of 2018 tragedy struck.
The morning started much like another fall Saturday, except now without having the haven of the Bowl. At 9:30 a.m. Jacob Heil was at an off-campus tailgate. That afternoon, as UK was in midst of beating Murray State, Heil struck 4-year-old Marco Lee Shemwell, who died two days later from his injuries.
I remember the day. I, like Heil, had been at an off-campus tailgate earlier that day. In the back of my mind, the similarities between Heil and I remind me that I was not far off from finding myself in his scenario.
I covered the freshman’s not guilty plea for the Kentucky Kernel. I sat in court with him and his family and heard his lawyers speak on his behalf. When he walked out of court, while I stood waiting for a statement, the photographer I was working with snapped unwanted pictures of the defendant walking through the field of press. And while I sat with my head hung for having experienced the fear, shame and pain I felt in that courtroom, the other reporters just typed on their phones and folded up the tripods of their big expensive cameras. While the trial is still yet to play out, the ending result will be relatively menial. No matter how the jury rules, nothing will change what happened on that day. A 4-year-old child will never grow old. On that day UK students saw the impact that their relaxing on the weekends can have. It’s easy to assume the culture of students is responsible for the death of Marco Lee Shemwell, but in reality, nothing is that black and white.
So, after the banning of the Bowl and the tragedy of the Murray State game, the University of Kentucky’s tailgate culture is at our most defining hour. With no direction from the school, students continue with their off-campus tailgates under a more watchful eye. Every Saturday morning Lex PD cars sit and plan their daily patrols. Warnings are hung days in advance, State Street closes and citations are given. Gamedays are quieter now, except for the drinking and partying that goes on closer to the stadium.
In K-Lot, students move their cars on Saturdays to make way for those alumni who can afford the tailgate spots. In the spots in front of the stadium, there are never very many students.
Instead, the lot is filled with tents, trailers and coolers all meant to accommodate the upper-class football fans. Crews come early in the week to set up for this crowd; their experience cannot be anything less than perfect. These are the people who contribute to the K-fund and Kentucky Can campaign. Maybe some of those people even shelled out the money for a ticket to the Lexus Loge or Woodford Reserve Club inside Kroger Field.
Over the summer of 2019, while many other SEC schools announced they would be opening alcohol sales to general admission guests in their stadiums, UK decided against it. The Kentucky Kernel reported UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart’s statement:
“It is our goal, as well as our responsibility, to create a safe, secure, positive, engaging environment for fans of all ages and from all walks of life. We believe we have an outstanding college fan experience at our games. Though we recognize we can always find ways to do better, we’re also careful about disrupting what we have currently in place.”
And that statement would work if UK was like Georgia, Alabama, Clemson or LSU, but guess what Mitch, the Wildcats aren’t exactly an asses in seats type team. The attendance numbers for Wildcat games are sporadic but the ticket sale trend slopes downwards. The stadium didn’t even sell out for the home opener. The Wall Street Journal reported that attendance to NCAA college football games is down 3.2 percent and even more concerning is its reporting that the attendance number given by universities is usually inflated by 29 percent.
But students coming to the game isn’t a top priority for anyone trying to manage a successful program. At the end of the day, students and the working class aren’t buying premium-priced tickets. However, what isn’t considered on gamedays is the thousands of the dollars that students and recent alumni have paid in tuition to just be a part of the school that’s on the players’ jerseys.
To the naked eye, the difference between college football and professional football isn’t obvious. There is the same number of players, only a few small rule changes and the players are unpaid students.
The spirit of college football is what keeps the NCAA in competition with the NFL. That spirit is made up of the stories that revolve around what happens on Saturdays in the fall on college campuses all around the country.
Getting students and everyday fans excited could really help the team; a rowdy home field advantage has been proven hard to play against. Currently, any team playing the Wildcats now just has to hold out till half time and wait for a majority of the crowd to leave the stadium. If the goal is to sell the most tickets, then why not create the best product?
Regardless of the situation, the desire to tailgate is at an all-time high. When I told my buddies that I planned on reporting instead of enjoying a Caturday, they were insulted. The idea that I would pursue a venture that could improve my academic resume instead of partaking in our timeless tradition failed to register with any of them. Not taking part in the comradery would cast my commitment to the group into doubt. They were right and I couldn’t do it. I decided to stay with them and write the story of how Kentucky tailgates actually are.
We decided not to sleep the night before; in our minds it would be better to just stay awake than it would be to try to wake up the morning of. We spent most the night on my front porch looking out over the lot the cops sat in weeks ago. The sun came up on us as we shared all our embarrassing stories from previous gamedays and drank Bang energy drinks.
At 8 a.m. we were already starting to feel the effects of our sleep deprivation, so we went house to house waking up the rest of our Caturday companions. Slowly our group grew to the handsome bunch we are and we went to the undisclosed, hidden, ever-elusive, off-campus, gameday tailgate location.
In the next part of this story, nothing can be confirmed or denied. It is either the truth or crazy ramblings; you will have to decide.
The scene is pretty much what anyone would expect. Guys with striped blue and white shirts who tuck their messy hair tucked under backwards hats are playing corn hole and throwing dice on homemade tables. Girls are standing on elevated surfaces wobbling around in their heels, always one wrong move away from a quick fall. All over students are congregated—gossiping, flirting and joking around.
I talked to a student visiting her friend from out of state. She was an advertising major whose real passion was filmmaking. She told me how she thought UK was supposed to be a big SEC football school but she felt like she was back in high school sneaking into houses, hiding from parents. She wasn’t used to the paranoia that UK tailgaters can expect, not knowing if at any second the police would come by pull the plug.
It’s not always bad when your tailgate gets a visit from Lexington’s finest. They are pretty funny guys and some of the most honest people out there. Sometimes they even seem as if they are even having fun riding their bikes together and if you look closely, they can be caught smiling.
One of my interviews with a Lex PD officer ended with him saying he should write us a ticket for “not having enough girls at the party and being a bunch of losers.” Then he threatened to come back when he was off the clock and beat us in our own backyard games. I don’t care what the Republicans say, police brutality is real.
The secret is out. Off-campus fraternity tailgates are lame. It’s a lot of sitting around looking at the same people you see every weekend. With no place to gather, Caturday energy has no way to spawn from the student population.
Students aren’t asking for much. We don’t need a place where booze flow abundantly and openly, but we need a place to be ourselves. The university needs to listen to the students when it comes to the direction of tailgate culture on this campus. I know I’m just a naïve college kid typing away on a computer in a poster-filled room but isn’t that who most college football fans are or once were?
I was able to get into the game against Toledo, thanks to my buddy’s managers scheduling him to work. The Lexus Loge was loaded with security and luck hadn’t been in my favor that day. Caffeine and blaring EDM could no longer hold me together and delusion was kicking in.
The closest I got to alcohol in the stadium that day was when I managed to sneak into a seat near the private lounge. From the outside looking in, I could only observe. I had failed at my goal to bring true immersive journalism to the students of Kentucky. It was my last opportunity to get any information that could be used in the writing process and all I had was rough notes and a few entries to my voice recorder. My story would have no facts of my own, or interviews with important administrators.
As I looked into the faces of the fortunate fans, I tried to search for some sort of poetic description but nothing original came to mind. To think I was a poet was as stupid as thinking I was a good student journalist. There was no romantic language to describe the moment because it wasn’t romantic. Looking into the crowd, there was no excitement, there weren’t anything resembling emotions in the looks of anyone from the high-class crowd, they watched the game as if they were looking at any other luxury their money could buy.
It was a stark difference from the degenerates I was with earlier that day. Those people cared, some of them had money on the game, some of them wouldn’t even watch the play by play but all of them had spent the whole week thinking about Caturday and all of them enjoyed it to the best of their ability.
Before my rampage of self-destruction that led to the narrative you just endured, I did manage to do a piece of actual journalism. In a phone interview with Dr. James Ziliak, the Gatton Endowed Chair in Microeconomics and Director of the Center for Poverty Research, we discussed the socio-economic state of Kentucky. He led off the interview saying that he did not have any statistics in front of him and I reassured him that statistics weren’t my style.
Dr. Ziliak talked about how the Bluegrass has a below-average fraction of the population who has a college degree and how most higher earnings go to those who have a higher education. In my interpretation, this disparity leads to a gap in income inequality and a gap in the people who can drink at UK football games.
Tailgating will live on. There will always be irresponsible college students like myself who will wake up every Saturday with a grin on our face and a spring in our step. The reality of the situation is that the high-water level is rising. Young people today live with passion. If you read the news we are in midst of a chaotic world; politicians fight like children, the earth is either going through global warming or climate change, and the economy is said to be heading towards a recession. We’re playing against a stacked deck.
As I walked away from Commonwealth Stadium at the end of my investigation, I saw two little boys holding their mother’s hands. The two young kids were moving their feet as fast as they could go. The mom stayed firm, holding her boys back from running away into the crazy world of the tailgates around them. The two cried and complained, angry at their mom for not letting them run wild, but she knew there was no reasoning with them.
Maybe some things never change.
By Ryan Brokamp
Illustrations By Tory Stephenson