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Blog Post | November 20, 2023

Scoring Touchdowns in Sobriety: Navigating the Tailgating Challenge During Football Season and Beyond

Recovery from a substance use disorder is often described as a journey, not an event. True, but how do events fit into that journey? When events- like weddings, concerts, and playoff games- are associated with alcohol or substances, what would fun look like for someone practicing sobriety? With football season in full swing, we wanted to tackle this question particularly through the lens of the time-honored institution of tailgating. This tradition of food, fun, and fellowship is a core part of the American sports experience. And yet, for the millions of people who identify as in recovery or sober curious, tailgating can be a minefield of triggers and constant doubt. Research indicates that without leisure and the opportunity to enjoy oneself, it can be near impossible to make sobriety stick! How do you have fun in recovery while staying true to yourself and goals?

Pairing alcohol and sports may feel as American as apple pie. Research shows that the majority of Americans drink while enjoying sports, although the percentage of drinkers varies by sport. Football has the highest association with drinking: 84% of in-person attendees and 83% of those watching at home report consuming alcohol during the game. Football is followed by boxing, hockey, basketball, and baseball respectively: over three quarters of American viewers report drinking while enjoying these sports. Tennis fans have the lowest rates of alcohol consumption, with 67% of live attendees imbibing (which is still more than half of event goers). From arena branding to the mainstream media advertisers on screen, event organizers underscore this association throughout our events: they want you to believe that substances are directly correlated to fun. And yet, many are bucking this trend and embracing a new tradition- the sober tailgate.

Sober tailgates, sober sections, and “family friendly zones” are growing in popularity in multiple community settings, from college campuses to music festivals and even the NFL itself. These supportive communities sometimes incorporate formalized recovery programming, but more often people just want a judgment-free space to have fun. Duke Rumely, founder of Sober AF entertainment, has spoken on the importance of including games, like cornhole or frisbee, and structured events so the tailgate doesn’t devolve into an awkward talk-therapy session. Rumely also notes that unfortunately, “there is no money in abstinence,” so folks in recovery often find that advocacy for inclusion is an ongoing need. While promoters and arenas may not have financial incentive to support recovery, Rumley is hoping to implement legal change in an effort to advance and sustain sober entertainment options: In Colorado, he is backing a new legislative effort to require a sober section for large venues (those that accommodate 10,000 or more attendees). 

SAFE Project recognizes the value of supportive environments and peer-to-peer interactions, and has joined in the effort to strengthen sober entertainment, including tailgates. Most recently, SAFE Project has stepped into the arena by sponsoring sober tailgates through the Collegiate Recovery Leadership Academy (CRLA) and as a key sponsor of the Miami Dolphins Recovery day. We also believe that a rising tide lifts all boats. We know that sober fun, with ample NA beverage options and opportunities for connecting, is good practice all around: when we openly talk about our choices and celebrate recovery and wellness, we are inadvertently challenging stigma and shame. 

Investing in sober spaces pays off dividends for campuses, communities, and die-hard fan clubs looking to foster belonging for members. “Creating a safe space for students, staff, and alumni who want to participate in a game day without the social pressures and cultural norms of binge drinking at tailgates prior to the game promotes an unparalleled feeling of belonging,” reflected Robin, a graduate student in recovery and former CRLA student. “When giving the option of attending a sober tailgate, colleges are reaching a hand out to students to promote inclusivity in arenas where students in recovery might find it difficult.” Robin sees the rising popularity of sober tailgates, dry bars, and sober sections as an indication that “people still want to have fun and go out, but they don’t want to feel like crap the next day or not meet their health goals.” 

So grab your game day gear, get your face paint ready, fire up the grills, and join the growing national movement of sober entertainment and fun. People in recovery- as well as the sober curious- are ready to welcome you with innovative refreshment options and of course, fellowship. Let’s enjoy the party together: we promise it’s just as much fun (and we’ll all remember the game).