A River of Booze

Inside one college town’s uneasy embrace of drinking

College students wait to visit bars in the heart of Athens, Ga., near the U. of Georgia campus. Lines form outside as people wait their turn to enter because of fire-code-occupancy limits.

The supplies are rolling in. At 1 p.m. on a Thursday, three delivery trucks line College Avenue. Around the corner, five more clog East Clayton Street. In downtown Athens, the center lane belongs to those who bring the booze.

Out come the boxes. Budweiser and Blue Moon, Bacardi Gold and Southern Comfort, Red Bull and rainbows of mixers. Stacked high on dollies, the goods are wheeled into bar after bar, each catering to students at the University of Georgia, where the iconic iron Arch stands within sight. Cutters Pub, On the Rocks, the Whiskey Bent. The blocks just beyond campus boast dozens of bars that own the late-night hours, when undergrads press themselves into crowds fueled by Fireball shots and beer as cheap as candy.

Athens, home to the flagship university and some 120,000 people, could be almost anywhere. This college town, like many others, celebrates touchdowns, serves early-morning cheeseburgers, and pours many flavors of vodka. When the sun goes down, some students get hammered, just as they do in Chapel Hill, Ann Arbor, and Eugene.

But here in Athens, everything is amplified. The temptations for young drinkers are plentiful, and the penalties can be severe. Enforcement is vigorous, and so, too, is the university’s commitment to prevention. Alcohol is a big business in town, with costs and benefits. Each bottle delivered on the eve of another weekend represents a love-hate affair, an abiding ambivalence about drinking.

It’s an uneasy equilibrium, with competing interests. There are determined police officers and resourceful entrepreneurs, business owners and health educators, students who reject drinking and alumni who embrace it.

As alcohol keeps flowing, each one has something at stake. Each one has a hand on the valve.

The Police Chief

The student is lying on a public bench, at the end of a trail of vomit. He is unconscious; his front pocket gapes, a wallet falling partway out. An officer shakes him, and again, finally rousing him. “How much,” the officer demands, “have you had to drink?”

The student blinks unsteadily. “Zero zero?” he mumbles, though a Breathalyzer test will confirm otherwise. He’s going to jail.

Jimmy Williamson, chief of the University of Georgia’s campus police force, turns away from the grainy footage, recorded by the officer’s body camera. “I can’t just leave him on a bench with a citation in his pocket,” Mr. Williamson says of the student. “A citation’s not going to sober him up.”

Mr. Williamson’s no teetotaler, but he didn’t have much time for carousing when he was a Georgia student. He put himself through college by working the midnight shift on the same police force. Now 48, he has spent nearly his entire career here, the past 10 as chief. He and his 90 officers, along with 240 from Athens-Clarke County, are the front line in dealing with alcohol and its immediate aftermath.

College students drink, always have. But Mr. Williamson argues that the problem of overconsumption has worsened. Average blood-alcohol levels in students stopped by the police have risen steadily—this year one blew a 0.33, more than four times the legal limit. With heavier drinking, the police now make drunk-driving arrests in midmorning, pulling over students on their way to class still intoxicated from the night before. “As a culture, we’ve supersized,” Mr. Williamson says. “And we’ve taken it into our drinking.”

He worries about the risks, about inebriated students becoming victims of sexual assault or other crimes. Corrections officials have passed along letters intercepted from inmates, boasting about robbing easy marks in downtown Athens. The police chief also fears that students will harm themselves or others.

Athens-Clarke County police officers respond to a scene outside a bar where a man was punched in the face by another person near the U. of Georgia campus.

Not long after midnight on a recent Friday, a call comes over the radio: A student has tripped and fallen after a night out and hit her head. Officers arrive to find Jacqueline, a 19-year-old with long, honey-colored hair, stretched out on the cold slab of a bus stop, surrounded by concerned friends. After falling she was unresponsive, for maybe 30 seconds, maybe a minute or two—no one seems quite clear. Long enough to prompt a call to 911. Now an egg-shaped welt has begun to swell next to her right eye, and her speech is slurred. Asked who is the president of the United States, she names her sorority president.

The paramedics arrive, and after some tears, Jacqueline is trundled off on a stretcher. Under Georgia’s medical-amnesty law, minors who seek help for themselves or their friends after drinking too much aren’t prosecuted.

For others it’s a different story. Get caught drinking underage in Athens, and you’ve guaranteed yourself a night in jail. To deter bad behavior, the police here have followed a no-strikes policy for nearly a decade. The approach is stricter than that in many other college towns, or in other Georgia municipalities.

Lest you think that means zero tolerance for drinking, well, think again. That group of students stumbling out of a bar at closing time? Sure, one officer says, the dorms in that direction house freshmen and sophomores only. But although a couple of the students are swaying, and one is riding on another’s shoulders, he lets them pass. Though they are almost assuredly underage, they are heading home safely.

Talk to Georgia students, and they tick off unwritten rules of drinking downtown, passed down each year to newcomers: Don’t step onto the sidewalk with an open container. No jaywalking. Never, ever get behind the wheel.

The police don’t do random ID checks, says Mr. Williamson, or stop everyone with a drink in hand. They deal only with the worst and worst-off. Those who pass out on a bench or in the bushes. Who play a real-life game of Frogger, dodging and darting into oncoming traffic. Who dress up as Santa Claus and try to break into a women’s residence hall.

Together, campus and local police officers log 900 to 1,000 underage-drinking arrests a year. That’s about three a night, Mr. Williamson points out, a small percentage of the thousands of students who pack downtown bars. He’s not trying to run a police state or mandate a dry campus. “We’re public servants with enforcement powers,” he says, “not an occupying force.”

Even so, the chief regularly fields complaints from parents, unhappy that he has locked up their kids and dismayed that they will have an arrest record. After he was called in several years ago by members of the university’s parents council, an influential group, he started requiring his officers to wear cameras. Now if parents complain, he offers to show them the arrest footage.

Even going to the tape, though, is not always enough. The mother of the guy in the Santa suit maintained that the police should’ve taken her son, who eventually passed out, back to his room, not to jail. Recounting the story, Mr. Williamson looks momentarily exasperated. He tried to explain, he says, that her son was safer sleeping off his drunkenness under supervision.

Not only does the chief find himself second-guessed, but he believes he’s inherited a problem. Today’s freshmen arrive on campus as habitual drinkers, he says. Too many parents have failed to talk to their children about responsible alcohol use. They’ve looked the other way. They’ve dismissed binge drinking and other risky behavior with, “Kids will be kids.”

Mr. Williamson is the father of two, Sarah, 12, and Mac, 10. His children, he knows, might drink in college, maybe even high school, but he’s not about to tell them it’s OK. Asked if it’s hypocritical to take such a stance when he had at least an occasional beer during his college days, he responds, “Did you tell your kids about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny? Sometimes you do what’s expedient, and when they get to be old enough, you talk about the truth.” Now that high school isn’t far off, he’s had conversations with his daughter about what to do if she’s pressured to drink. Take a beer and empty it into the toilet, he tells her. No one will know if you refill the bottle with water.

The police chief talks with other parents’ children, too. Between lectures to fraternities and sororities, to sports teams and student groups, and in 17 freshman-orientation sessions, Mr. Williamson tells thousands of University of Georgia students a year about the consequences of drinking too much. He hopes he gets through to a few, but he’s realistic about succeeding when parents seemingly cannot. “How can I do something in five minutes,” he says, “that they couldn’t do in 18 years?”

Unless students are raised to see drinking differently, Mr. Williamson says, he and his officers can treat only the symptoms, not the heart of the problem. They’ll just go on trying to keep students safe for another night.

The Fake-ID Guy

That leaves the Athens police no shortage of work to do: patrolling outside bars, conducting late-night traffic stops, and busting what might have been the largest fake-ID ring run from a college campus.

Police believe the ring supplied as many as 1,000 students with fraudulent identification, its cards ending up as far away as Mississippi and Illinois. The kingpin was a University of Georgia student named William Finley Trosclair.

At Georgia, a fake ID is pretty much a necessity for anyone under 21 who wants to drink. For many incoming students, procuring one is a standard part of their introduction to college, like getting their roommate assignment and class schedule. The drinking culture here is different than on many other campuses, centered less on house parties and more on the mass of downtown bars. Whether you start the night at a frat party or pregaming in a dorm room, everyone, students say, ends up downtown. For most underclassmen, that means a fake ID.

Mr. Trosclair was no different. He got an ID, not a very good one, from a fraternity brother his freshman year. When he tried to use it at a liquor store, it was confiscated. Later that night, he was caught trying to slip into a bar. He was arrested and sentenced to community service.

While serving his 20 hours, he met a fellow student with a fledgling fake-ID business. The two became friends and, eventually, partners, with Mr. Trosclair using his student-loan money to help purchase a printer that could produce high-quality forgeries. He made back his loan money and more in three days.

Mr. Trosclair is 23 now, and still baby-faced. He didn’t set out to be the center of a crime ring, he says. He just wanted some spending money, and an ID for himself. Selling a few, he figured, would help him cover his fraternity dues, $1,500 a semester, and put some cash in his pocket when he headed downtown.

The IDs that Mr. Trosclair sold were high-quality, with Florida driver’s-license holograms—bought off the Internet from a guy in China—that seemed real. Soon everybody was clamoring for one, at $80 to $100. Mr. Trosclair recruited a sales force of sorts, offering students a free ID if they sold 10 to their friends. “I’m a pretty good businessman,” he says, “and I had a good product.” He sat back and collected the cash.

For a college sophomore, it was heady stuff. “It was addicting, the money and the status that came from that,” he says. Talking with a girl was easy, he recalls, when you could buy shots for her and all her friends. Police say Mr. Trosclair and his partner made a six-figure income from the IDs. He says he doesn’t know the exact amount; he spent it.

His success became his undoing. One of his salespeople had a roommate who, afraid she might get in trouble, went to her resident assistant. The police began tracking down Mr. Trosclair’s IDs, waiving charges against students who signed statements against him. One night they raided his partner’s apartment, breaking down the door with a battering ram. Later they searched Mr. Trosclair’s fraternity house. The case took nearly two years to build, but he was eventually charged with 16 felony counts of making and distributing fake IDs. In his mug shot he’s smiling—he thought people would see him as a “harmless kid.” Instead, many thought he was smug and unremorseful.

Mr. Trosclair has had time to reflect. After fighting the charges, he took a plea deal. Last fall he went to prison, serving 10 weeks. He missed Thanksgiving and Christmas; his mother had surgery while he was behind bars. Some people are still mad at him, others don’t trust him. In his wallet he keeps his faded ID card from the Georgia Department of Corrections. In the photo, his head, like all prisoners’, is shaved. “To remind me not be an idiot,” he says, and tucks it away.

The area around campus boasts a multitude of bars, prompting a former vendor of fake IDs to describe Athens as "an alcohol-based city."

Still, he retains some pride in what he did, noting more than once that at the height of his ring, the University of Georgia was named the country’s top party school. As he sees it, he was providing a service, and if he hadn’t, someone else would have. “Kids are always going to drink. They are going to get into a bar anyway,” he says. “It’s weird to say, but I don’t know if what I did had much impact.”

Indeed, there’s little sign that shutting down Mr. Trosclair hurt the fake-ID market. Not far from downtown, at the Five Points Bottle Shop, employees regularly confiscate phonies. A collection once hung above the cash register, but the wall of shame failed to deter people. Now hundreds of cards sit in small plastic bags behind the counter. Some are homemade disasters, with crooked type and fuzzy photographs. One is a bad photocopy job pasted onto a McDonald’s gift card.

Mr. Trosclair is back in Athens, trying to get readmitted to Georgia to finish his chemistry degree. He also dreams of making it in country music; he’s recording a five-song EP. His lyrics are mostly about budding romances and lost loves, he says, not his criminal past.

When he was selling IDs, Mr. Trosclair used to imagine what would happen if he got caught. Part of him, he says, believed that the police might tell him to go on making them. That way officers could keep busting and fining students for underage drinking. The bars could keep selling beer and shots. Athens could collect taxes on it all. “This is an alcohol-based city,” he says. “The place runs on it.”

The Bar Owner

Everyone knows Mark Bell. “I provide the party,” he says. “I put smiles on people’s faces.”

He also puts money in the till. Long after most businesses have closed, downtown bars keep Athens’s cash registers ringing well past midnight. Mr. Bell owns 9d’s, a popular 1990s-themed club where people dance to the Spice Girls beneath the addled gaze of Cosmo Kramer. Each time someone orders a rum and Coke, Athens-Clarke County collects seven cents on the dollar, plus a 3-cent mixed-drink excise tax, on top of the 22-cent tax on the sale of the liquor bottle. A good night at 9d’s is a good night for the local economy.

On a Friday afternoon, Mr. Bell strolls through town in a black Batman cap and wraparound shades. He stops to shake hands with a county police lieutenant. At a crosswalk, he chats with a local lawmaker.

Downtown Athens boasts a multitude of bars—dozens within a quarter mile of the campus. Even so, on football weekends, lines form outside many of them.

Bar owners have clout here, and it’s easy to see why. The place is loaded with bars, more than 50 in a few square blocks. Nearly half of the approximately 220 storefronts downtown are occupied by businesses with alcohol licenses. The Frigidaire Building is now home to Magnolias Bar. An old bank is now the Silver Dollar Bar. The Athens Observer building? There’s a bar there, too.

The story of how Athens became a big booze town is complicated, but the simple version goes like this: During the 1980s, many downtown businesses closed, and department stores relocated to a suburban shopping mall. Only a handful of bars were downtown when the university, in response to alcohol problems on the campus, got tough on drinking in the Greek system. The new rules, including a ban on kegs, pushed students into local watering holes.

At the time, some Athens officials worried that more businesses would flee to the ’burbs. So they didn’t cap the number of bars and restaurants that could open downtown, where a fast-growing music scene also drove demand for late-night drinks. After a decade or so, there were dozens of places to buy a beer or a bourbon just off campus.

Over the years, Athens officials have scrutinized alcohol policies, but bar owners often win. Athens-Clarke commissioners have scrapped proposals to require background checks for bouncers, to set the minimum age to work in a bar at 21, and to end happy-hour specials.

Now and then, there’s talk of limiting the number of bars in Athens. “We are the red-headed stepchild, but they’ve got to be reminded not to smack the one hand that feeds them,” Mr. Bell says of local leaders who have criticized bars. “They hate that we’re here, but they love the money.”

In this crowded quarter, bars vie relentlessly for students’ business. Mr. Bell loves the fall, when undergrads with prepaid credit cards return to Athens, when football games fill local hotels with thirsty fans. On those weekends, he puts four bartenders on duty. “I treat it like Disney World,” he says. “The crowds are here, they’ve got their wallets out, and you’ve got to be ready for them to give it to you.”

But competition has driven prices down. During “power hours,” typically 9-11 p.m., students can drink discounted cocktails for $2 or $3. Since so many bars charge similar prices, some try to lure students with potent drinks. (Whiskey Bent touts the Cannonball, featuring Bacardi 151 and “four other liquors” for $3.) A local ordinance sets the minimum prices for drinks at $1.

Some venues, students and police say, have used social media or word of mouth to advertise forbidden drink specials: penny beers, free drinks for women. That’s why, all of a sudden, students checking smartphones might flee one bar and flock to another.

In the late-night realm of fast-flying cash, Mr. Bell must weigh his interest in profit against the whims of customers, more and more of whom, he says, seek the cheapest booze they can find. The least expensive drinks at 9d’s are $2. He refuses to go lower.

To survive, Mr. Bell believes, a bar needs a niche. Sure, some students don’t like General Beauregard’s, with its Confederate flags, but those who do swear by the Dixieland Tea, spiked with bourbon. 9d’s was meant to cut across patrons’ cultural lines: “I’m banking on their memories,” he says.

College students stumble back toward campus after drinking in Athens, Ga., where a local ordinance requires bars to charge at least $1 for a drink.

While memories get people in the door, Mr. Bell depends on markups: He has to pay a dozen or so employees and $4,300 a month in rent. A bottle of Budweiser sets him back about 60 cents, and he charges $2 to $3 for it. A 1.75-liter bottle of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, which goes for $26.99 in Athens, contains roughly 39 1.5-ounce shots, which typically sell for $2 or $3 each. If he buys several cases at a time, he gets a big discount, he says. “That is where the money is.”

The allure of owning a bar he can describe in three words: “In no particular order, money, ego, girls.” He’s a local guy whose great-grandfather opened a grocery store here that’s still going strong. Although Mr. Bell could have joined the family business, he fell for the hum of speakers, the swirl of dance floors. At 9d’s, he can take over the DJ booth whenever he wants.

Still, Mr. Bell, 42, isn’t sure how long he wants to own a bar, with its many worries. A big one: students’ fake IDs. Athens police officers run frequent undercover operations, enlisting teenagers to nail bouncers who let them in and bartenders who serve them. 9d’s has been cited once—a mistake by a doorman, says Mr. Bell, who paid a $500 fine. Over the past 20 years, local officials say, just one bar has lost its liquor license because of underage-drinking violations.

Running a business on booze takes a toll, says Mr. Bell. In the doorway of an abandoned building, he picks up the green shard of a broken beer bottle and drops it in a trash can. “It’s a business of excess,” he says. “It’s made me jaded in some ways, to see the best and worst in people.”

Over the years, many bars have come and gone, one semester’s hot spot turning cold the next. This past May, Mr. Bell reluctantly closed 8e’s, his 1980s club, where traffic had slowed after eight years, its novelty wearing off, its regulars growing older.

But 9d’s still draws a crowd, young and giddy. Past 1 a.m., long after Mr. Bell has gone home, the club bursts with students dancing to Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5,” drinking $2 well drinks, in a large room where movie posters—Pulp Fiction, Jurassic Park—plaster the walls. When the music stops and the lights go on, the bleary and the buzzed, some singing, file out peacefully enough. A woozy young man slumps against the wall at the top of the long stairway. “I have trouble with stairs,” he mutters.

How long will students keep coming here to dance and drink? Mr. Bell has wondered. Maybe one day the time will be right for a club commemorating the first decade of the 21st century. If he doesn’t open it, somebody else probably will.

The Educator

An empty shot glass sits on a table in Liz Prince’s office. She has just used it to counsel a student about how much he’s actually drinking, how his nights might turn out differently if he had a bit less.

That’s her job—to be not a prohibitionist, but a realist. “What we know about students,” she says, “is that telling them ‘Bad, bad, bad, don’t do it, it’s wrong’ just doesn’t work.”

As associate director of health promotion at Georgia, Ms. Prince, 51, tries to teach students how to make responsible decisions. A plain-talker who relates easily to young people, she’s a good fit for a university that has embraced a range of prevention, intervention, and counseling strategies. Long considered a party school, Georgia these days is also known among student-health officials as a place that looks campus drinking in the eye.

Ms. Prince leads the John Fontaine Jr. Center for Alcohol Awareness and Education, established in 2006 with a Texas businessman’s donation of $2-million. Jack Fontaine had dropped out of Georgia in 1978 because, he says, he drank too much. Now a recovering alcoholic, he named the center after his son who died at 16 in an alcohol-related car crash.

The center employs counselors specializing in alcohol and drug abuse, sexual assault, and other violence. Last year it started the Collegiate Recovery Community, through which students who are overcoming addictions attend regular support groups and weekly seminars on time management, meditation, and résumé writing.

Students who abuse alcohol often have other serious problems that colleges must also confront, Ms. Prince has learned over the years. To put drinking in a box is to ignore its complexity. Heavy drinking may be a health issue, but it can become a student-engagement issue, an academic-success issue, a retention issue.

Students who violate Georgia’s campus alcohol policies are usually referred to the Fontaine center, where a screening may guide them to a one-on-one harm-reduction program or a series of group sessions. Many students confess to feeling unconnected to the rest of the campus, says Ms. Prince. Recently she helped start a mentoring program to pair at-risk students with faculty or staff members who help them devise a personal mission statement and a plan to get more engaged.

Ms. Prince says she would have benefited from a frank discussion of alcohol as an undergrad at the State University of New York College at Brockport, where she partied a lot. Her memories of those first few years are hazy.

After earning a master’s degree in counseling, she spent years living among students. Colleges, she says, are inheriting alcohol problems that students develop in high school or even middle school. In her experience, today’s teenagers are drinking earlier—starting at 13 or 14—and consuming more and harder liquor.

Police officers in Athens don't bother issuing citations for underage drinking. Those caught are immediately arrested and locked up.

Ms. Prince has thought about the instructions teenagers get about driving. “When you turn 15, we don’t just turn over the keys and go ‘Hey, here’s the car, go drive,’ with no lessons, no driver’s-ed classes, no nothing,” she says. But teenagers don’t often get in-depth lessons about alcohol, such as how it affects men and women differently, or that a woman’s tolerance might vary with her menstrual cycle. “We’re not teaching them,” she says, “how to drink.”

So she runs “bartending school” for incoming students during mandatory orientation sessions at Georgia. Handing over a vodka bottle full of water, she asks them to pour what they think is one drink into a 16-ounce cup. After a discussion of alcohol’s physical effects and consequences, she empties the cups into two-ounce shot glasses. What seemed like one drink is often two or three.

Ms. Prince talks to bar owners and employees, too—about how to tell if a patron’s had too much, when to call someone a cab, how cheap-drink specials affect the campus. Many bars, she says, do what they’re supposed to—check IDs, cut people off—but others skirt the law. Students here know the names of “freshman bars,” where bouncers barely glance at IDs.

“In college towns, there are people who are going to make a lot of money where liquor is served,” she says. “Their incentive is different than ours.”

Ms. Prince will pipe up all over town. In the parking lot of Sam’s Club last year, she saw a group of young men loading boxes of beer and liquor onto a trailer. “That’s a lot,” she observed, asking about their plans. Where were they were headed? Would there be food there? She introduced herself, explaining that she just wanted them to be careful, safe.

The Fontaine center runs a bystander-intervention program, teaching students techniques to use with their peers. Many want to do the right thing, says Ms. Prince, but they don’t know what that is. So they often end up saying nothing.

The same is true of adults. Ms. Prince recalls her first Georgia football game, where she saw, across the aisle, two young women propping up an inebriated young man whose head rolled from side to side. Everyone in the section stared.

When the man’s head fell forward into a spectator, Ms. Prince heard his friends say, “Let’s feed him something.” Not a good idea, she told them, because he might vomit and inhale his own puke. She advised them to take him home.

When the group left, the fans around her applauded, Ms. Prince recalls. “Everyone was thinking the same thing, but no one was going to do anything.”

The Party Planner

The music throbs and lights pulsate as hundreds of students, hands in the air, jump ecstatically to the beat. In a booth suspended far above, a DJ spins high-energy house music, heavy on thumping bass. The crowd moves like a single supercharged organism, guys pumping their fists, women cheering.

But at this party? No alcohol or drugs, please.

Its planners are Phi Slam, a group of students whose motto is “When was the last time you had your mind blown?” Another might be, “The most fun you can have sober.”

Adam Tenny, a senior, is one of the organizers. He discovered Phi Slam not long after he arrived at Georgia, when a group of upperclassmen pounded on his door and invited him to play flag football. This is what Phi Slam calls “storming the dorm”: running up and down the halls of every freshman high-rise at the start of the fall semester. After the game, the members told him about a barbecue, then about Scoop-a-Loop, a dance party and ice-cream social. In short order, Mr. Tenny was a member of Phi Slam.

The focus on freshmen is no accident. In the first weeks and months of college, students are searching for a niche, trying to fit in. If all they see is drinking, then it stands to reason they’ll drink, too. “The people you surround yourself with,” Mr. Tenny says, “is who you will become.”

The group puts on a dozen or more events each semester, like football watch parties, cosmic slip ’n’ slide, and the popular BonFryer, where students can bring candy, cookie dough, doughnuts—anything, really—to be fried up in a boiling vat of pancake batter (there’s a bonfire, too; hence “bon”). Twice a year, Phi Slam stages an epic dance party with an elaborate theme. Close to 4,000 students turned out for this fall’s shindig, which marked the group’s 10th anniversary.

Phi Slam’s origins are this: a half-dozen bored roommates looking for something to do on a Saturday night. They didn’t want to hit the bars downtown but found the nondrinking alternatives, like university-sponsored movie nights or trips to the mall, kind of lame.

So they got some music, picked up a few boxes of those cheap colored ice pops, and invited 20 of their friends. When more than 100 people showed up, the guys knew they weren’t alone in their desire for an alcohol-free social scene. Phi Slam—the name is a tongue-in-cheek nod to Georgia’s many fraternities—was born.

As members of the original group neared graduation, they recruited new members. Today the core organizers number about 20. It’s a shoestring operation, unaffiliated with the university. Many parties are at an apartment where some of the Phi Slammers live; bigger events take place on an adjacent empty lot. The imaginative sets are DIY, and much of the budget is underwritten by grateful parents. For the rest, members beg, borrow, but don’t steal—they are united by a strong, if little-talked-about, Christian faith. They’re putting on parties, Mr. Tenny explains. “We’re not trying to get thousands of people to have Bible study.”

Almost 22 and boy-band handsome, Mr. Tenny came to Georgia terrified, he says, of the pressure he might face to drink. Some of his high-school classmates did, but he’d remained sheltered. “School, soccer, video games, that was my life,” he says. “My parents had it pretty easy with me.” College, he knew, would be different.

But he had a hunch that there were others who would prefer an alternative, if they only knew where to look. Phi Slam tries to be where students are. When much of the university headed south this fall for the football team’s annual clash with the University of Florida, Phi Slam held a swing dance at St. Simon’s Island, where Georgia fans traditionally stop for the night and party.

The university itself puts on alcohol-free events. One recent Friday night the University Union held an “Up, Up, and UGA” party, featuring a climbing wall, bungee trampoline, and tethered hot-air balloon that took students on a four-story-high ride. Phi Slam had used a similar theme last year.

Despite the group’s appeal, organizers are not naïve. Phi Slam polices its events, hiring off-duty officers to ensure that its parties are drug- and alcohol-free. But there’s nothing stopping people from drinking beforehand, and Mr. Tenny knows that some probably do. Nor does he kid himself that Phi Slam is anything but an alternative to the alcohol culture that is the norm in Athens, with its rows of bars and never-ending drink specials. “We’ve gotten to the point,” he says, “where it seems like every day of the week is Thirsty Thursday.”

Now in his final semester, Mr. Tenny has reflected on what Phi Slam has meant to him. He came out of his shell, gained confidence, met like-minded friends. He found the strength to say “No thanks,” even when everyone around him was drinking. He occasionally has a beer or two with friends, but he hasn’t been tempted to go downtown, he says. “When you weigh the pros and cons”—hefty bar tabs or legal trouble versus focusing on schoolwork—“alcohol can be a distraction.”

Phi Slam provides a path for those who want to take it, says Mr. Tenny. “Maybe we can make a difference for one person, for an individual, even if we can’t change the culture.”

The Tailgater

Jason Bening surveys the bedlam around him. Men and women of all ages, high-fiving and shouting. It’s a Saturday in November, and parties are going in every corner of Georgia’s campus. But none is louder than the one at the corner of South Lumpkin and Wray Streets. On a wide patch of grass, Mr. Bening greets friends and strangers at a tailgate where nobody goes hungry or thirsty. It’s called the Libation Station.

Today’s gathering is especially raucous. In two hours, the football team will play the Auburn Tigers, among Georgia’s biggest rivals. The game has whipped up the Bulldog faithful, many having arrived before 7 a.m., the earliest the university lets fans set up their tables and tents. It’s one rule Georgia imposes on the legions of tailgaters who take over the campus six or seven times a year. They are free to drink as much as they want, most anywhere they want. Like right here, across from the department of romance languages.

Tailgates are reunions, rituals, traditions. They are also daylong drinking parties, which Georgia, like many institutions, enables by providing thousands of parking spaces. Setting out hundreds of trash and recycling bins. Renting dozens of porta-potties, which cover the campus on game days.

Fans stake claims on territory in front of the admissions office, near dorms, on hillsides. “Some of our adults are some of our worst problems,” says an athletic-department official. “The old crowd comes back, drinks a little too much, and it thinks it is 20 years old.” Some partyers don’t even plan to go to the game.

Football games add more alcohol to the mix in Athens, as many students play beer pong or other drinking games while tailgating.

The Libation Station began years ago as a small gathering in the historic part of campus. But after fans repeatedly trashed the place, destroying the grass, the university imposed new rules: No more tents, kegs, grills, or televisions over there. “We don’t blame them,” Mr. Bening says. “People were abusing it.” So hard-core tailgaters like him moved elsewhere. Over time, the Libation Station has grown in size and popularity. This summer its masterminds made a promotional video for their tailgate. Some devotees wear bracelets bearing its name.

It’s an impressive kingdom. Beneath strands of lights ensconced in red and black Solo cups, a big table is covered with grilled snacks. An eight-foot-long bar is loaded with liquor and mixers. A dozen coolers brim with beer and soda. A sign says: “We tailgate harder than your team plays.”

Mr. Bening and his friend Rick Floyd, a 1984 Georgia graduate who hasn’t missed a game in 22 years, make all this happen. Although Mr. Bening graduated from Southern Illinois University, 30 years ago, he loves the Dawgs deeply; his son, Hunter, plays first base for the university’s baseball team. Both men, who live a couple of hours away, have been successful. Mr. Bening is vice president and regional sales director at a surgical-supply company; Mr. Floyd owns a trucking company and a mortgage firm.

On Saturdays they are passionate hosts. “This is the best,” says Mr. Bening, in a jacket emblazoned with a G. “We just love throwing a big party.”

For today’s tailgate, Mr. Bening says, he and Mr. Floyd spent about $2,000 on food and maybe another two or three grand on booze. Maker’s Mark, Jack Daniel’s, and 18 handles of Ketel One vodka. “A whole lotta alcohol,” Mr. Bening says. “We’re down to the last two bottles of Ketel One.”

Or not. A young woman runs over: “Someone just snatched two handles of vodka off the bar!”

Inside a big metal box connected to a propane tank, tonight’s specialty is cooking: a Lowcountry Boil with sausage, shrimp, corn, and lemons. Mr. Bening opens the lid, releasing a blast of cayenne, and shouts something to Mr. Floyd.

It’s hard to hear anyone. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” booms from tall speakers. “I’ve got a migraine times three,” says the wife of one of the regulars. She grabs a bottle of Tanqueray she’s stashed beneath a table and refills her gin and tonic.

Students tailgate on the U. of Georgia campus before a football game against Auburn in mid-November.

The booze is almost gone, but Mr. Bening isn’t worried. He’s got a postgame stash in his truck. “If we win,” he says, grinning, “we might have a celebratory cocktail.”

Not far away, revelers mosey by. A man wheels a keg in a shopping cart. A woman in black-cotton gloves carries a stemless wineglass. A student giving directions holds up a handle of Fireball whiskey, pointing west.

Over at the Tent City tailgate, some people with small children stick to soda. A Georgia graduate with a jug of Pralines and Dick (Praline pecan liqueur, George Dickel whiskey, and half-and-half) tries to imagine what would happen if the university ever banned alcohol at tailgates. Fans would protest, he says, maybe boycott a few games, but eventually get over it.

Others scoff. “I’ll tell you what would happen,” says a white-haired man near the student center, with a cup of Crown Royal on ice. “People would show up with it anyway!”

Just past 7:15, Georgia kicks off to Auburn. Glowing tents full of fans line the sidewalks. Everywhere, flat-screen TVs glimmer in the dark. At the Libation Station, a small group cheers as the Bulldogs stuff a second-down running play. “Hurt him!” someone yells. The Tigers score first, but the Bulldogs eventually prevail, 34-7. As promised, victory cocktails flow. The long, loud celebration spills downtown. On this night, police officers will make 10 arrests and issue 72 citations.

The next morning, the sunrise illumines a campus strewn with debris. In one quad, someone’s left a set of lawn chairs. Scavengers carry off abandoned coolers.

At South Lumpkin and Wray, the sweet stench of booze lingers in the cold air. The Libation Station’s supplies are gone, its tents packed away. All that remains are trash bags and recycling boxes, overflowing with cans and cups.

Among the detritus of a football weekend in downtown Athens: beer empties, cigarette butts, and a discarded pompom.

On Sundays after football games, the athletic department oversees an enormous cleanup operation. It contracts with a local company that hires people to pick up each bottle, each bottlecap. Dozens of workers in blue latex gloves use long poles to pluck acres of garbage. One, an elderly man pulling trash from some bushes, says he’ll make $70 for five or six hours of work.

In his tattered coat, he is yet another participant in a seemingly ceaseless cycle. He will go on cleaning up, just as delivery drivers will make their rounds, as students will party and police officers will patrol. Even as counselors and educators try to curb overconsumption, to slow down the alcohol culture, it rolls on. In Athens, as on campuses everywhere, drinking is the default.

By 8 a.m. on this Sunday, cleanup is in full swing. Tank trucks service the porta-potties, and flatbeds take them away. By dusk, the last of the trash has been hauled off, leaving the campus as it was, before the party began.

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