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Red Cup Saturdays in Columbus

Fall is in the air. That means football, along with all the related fun. Bars, tailgates, parties. Chocolate chip cookies at 9:00 a.m. washed down with a beer or two before the game.

Everyone should know the basic rules by now. It’s a crime to drive while under the influence. It’s a crime to pee on the bushes in public. It’s a crime to drink a beer on the sidewalk in public. It’s a crime to drink if you are under 21. This list goes on and on and on.

Yet people continually break the rules. The lure of game day fun is just too much.

Here in Columbus, Ohio we have the Bucks. The Ohio State University. Buckeye football is king on a fall day in Columbus. The tailgates start the night before, as eager fans jockey for the best spots near the ‘Shoe. (In case you’re an atheist or a Michigan fan, that’s what we call the stadium—The Horseshoe). The drinking and partying often starts the night before, and continues well after the game.

Those of us who are old enough recall with some disbelieve the days when Lane Avenue was closed down completely for a free-for-all drink fest. We could swim through a sea of empty beer cans on the road while carrying a 12 pack on our shoulder with one hand and an open beer in the other. The biggest obstacle was the long line at the 7/11 store to buy more beer.

Not surprising, this didn’t last long. Cars were turned over, riots ensued, and dumpsters were burned.

The backlash was swift. No more open containers. No more Lane Avenue drinking. No more free-for-all. Liquor control and special duty officers were everywhere. Droves of students were lined up in court for underage drinking. And fans were indignant. How dare they take away our tailgates? How dare they take away our 8:00 a.m. beers?

One might imagine that this couldn’t be the end. No way the fans, big money donors, and the general partying masses would stand for Buckeye game day without beer. And how could the University and the city of Columbus expect anything less?

Well what emerged from the rubble is a bizarre set of unwritten, unspoken rules. It seems that it’s ok to have beer. But there are some generalized restrictions. Of course you still have to be 21. And you have to keep it confined to your tailgate. And, most important, you have to pour it into a red plastic cup.

Ahhhh. The magic of the red cup. Ohio State scarlet-colored plastic masking the frothy golden beverage within.

So what’s so special about the red cup? Well, nothing really. But somehow the police tend to overlook the red cups.

Let’s be realistic. It turns out that if you talked to the police (as I often do), they will likely tell you that they don’t really want to spoil your day. They don’t want to bust the honest fans enjoying a fall Saturday. But sometimes people give them no choice. This is what I call the jackass rule. If you are a jackass, or act like one, you will probably get in trouble.

So, some basic principles have emerged:

First, don’t be a jackass. Don’t pick fights, scream obscenities, or pee in the bushes. You will get caught and arrested.

Second, don’t leave your tailgate with your beer, even if it’s in a red cup. Walking the sidewalks freely with a red cup is certain to draw the attention of the police. They will have no choice but to take action. And never, ever cross the bridge on Lane Avenue with any sort of open container. The police set up check points at both ends. Like crouching tigers, they are just waiting to pounce with test tubes, zip lock baggies, and pre-printed criminal complaints.

Third, and perhaps most important, while at your confined tailgate, keep your beer in a red cup. Don’t flaunt your disregard for the rules. Keep it low key.

But here’s the problem. These are unspoken, unwritten rules. Everything is still illegal. We can’t in Columbus have an open container. It’s a crime. We can’t just pour it in a cup and expect to be unmolested by the police.

So what’s the moral? Simple, really. If you don’t want to commit a crime, don’t commit a crime. That means no open container, red cup or otherwise.

“Wait,” you say. “Everyone is doing it.”

I know that. But what people don’t see is the fans who come to our office on Monday morning charged with open container violations. Guess what. Many of them followed the unwritten rules and were charged with crimes anyway. Imagine going into court and asking for a dismissal because the booze was in a red cup. Not gonna work.

In other words, unwritten rules are not the law. The law is the law. And if you don’t want to get in trouble, drink your beer legally–in a bar, or some other area where it’s permitted. Or, if you want to drink at your tailgate, do it at your own risk.

It turns out, as one might expect, there is no “red cup” defense to the open container law in Ohio.

Go Bucks!

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