Binge drinking in college: The tradition won’t die, but students will

by | Jun 12, 2022 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 1 comment

This is what happened, according to police reports. There was a party at a Michigan State fraternity. Four new members had alcohol poured down their throats. They drank until they passed out. Once they were unconscious, the others drew on their bodies, slapped them, and put food on them. All four were eventually hospitalized.

One is now dead.

His name was Phat Nguyen. He was 21. He was found in the fraternity basement, with the word “simp” written on body.

This is what happened, according to a lawsuit. A freshman at the University of Missouri was led down to the basement of yet another fraternity, and was given an entire bottle of vodka to drink. After downing three-quarters of it, and having beer funneled down his throat, he, too, passed out. He was left on a couch, unresponsive. When someone finally brought him to a hospital, he had suffered massive cardiac arrest and brain damage.

His name is Daniel Santulli. He was 19. He can no longer walk, talk or see.

The fraternity leaders at the MSU party are now facing criminal charges, as is a member of the Missouri frat. But no trial or verdict will undo the damage. And perhaps the most important point we should be exploring today isn’t about justice.

It’s about our endless, headshaking fascination with getting blindingly drunk when we are young. It goes on and on.

But why?

There’s got to be a better way to be cool

So much has changed culturally in this country in recent years, things people born a few decades ago might never have imagined. Gay marriage is legal. Cars can drive themselves. You can smoke pot almost anywhere. You can officially declare your gender.

The concept of “cool” has changed a hundred times over. Yet we still haven’t progressed passed the Neanderthal idea that guzzling alcohol when we are in high school or college somehow makes us popular, instead of incredibly stupid.

It’s not like the information is hidden. Incidents like those at Missouri and MSU have been going on for decades. Reports of alcohol poisoning are rampant. Information is at your fingertips. A simple Google search of “What happens if I drink a whole bottle of vodka” will provide all the reason you need to never do it.

Yet our kids do it anyhow. Recent studies show that nearly one in three high schoolers reports drinking alcohol, and one in six reports binge drinking. That’s high school. Even though the legal drinking age is 21.

The college numbers are worse, with some studies showing binge drinking reaches 33% of the student population. Kids who live on campus no longer have to crawl home to face mom and dad. And the social pressure to belong, especially first-year students and fraternity pledges, is often so strong it overwhelms common sense.

Time to break this cycle

Perhaps you have a child graduating high school this month, and you’re excited about him or her heading to college in the fall. How much do you worry about some new peer introducing them to vodka bottles or kegs of beer and suggesting that the more they can drink, the more admired they will be? And if you say, “Our kid is a good kid, we don’t have to worry about that” — well, I’m pretty sure many parents of the more than 1,800 college-age kids who die each year of alcohol-related events thought the same thing.

I went through an event like this in college. It was called a “Booze Cruise.” The drinking age was 18 back then, so our group of freshmen was welcome on the boat, and we drank all we wanted all night long. Much of the memory is fuzzy, but I do recall some of us urinating off the boat and throwing up in trash cans.

Luckily, all we suffered was embarrassment. And the hangover I endured was enough to keep me from ever drinking that much again. When I look back on it now, I wonder what was the appeal? I already had friends. Did I just want to show off for them? Was it something I felt compelled to do more than wanted to do?

I do remember this: I had no idea how many drinks were too many. And I imagine most college kids today don’t have that information when they enter the frat party, the mixer or the boozy spring break weekend. The consequences, as we see, can be lethal.

There are passages in life that you anticipate — marriage, kids, retirement — and others that just seem to happen as you age. Former sports geeks discover they just don’t care that much anymore. Fans who used to buy every record find that music isn’t as critical.

Alcohol should falls in a that category. Holding your head and saying “I got so wasted last night” may get a smirk and a nod in your 20s. but it’s kind of pathetic in your 40s.

Why can’t we impart that to our kids? How many more must die or be injured in desperate but foolhardy attempts to fit in? We’ve gotten so smart about so many things. But alcohol keeps making us dumb.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

1 Comment

  1. Mark Liston

    How many of us love the movie Animal House. We loved John Belushi. Unfortunately the character he played in the movie was mild to the character he played in real life. Another talent wasted. Yet, commedians didn’t learn. How it is that another great talent, Chris Farley, didn’t learn? Think about the rockers who are no longer with us.

    Keep warning us the way you do, Mitch. Maybe it will hit home and save a life. We can only pray it does.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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