Editorial cartoon (11/29/2017)

During the Badgers' homecoming football game against Maryland earlier this fall, retired Cap Times' sports editor Joe Hart and I sat behind Camp Randall's Section 0, which some view as one of those notorious north-end-zone student sections where the students indulge in naughty chants.

Sitting in Section O helped me figure out why it is that the students come so late to the football games, a practice that irritates the high rollers in Section E. A horde of security people, enough to make the federal TSA blush, escorts the students into the seats, not at all unlike you might remember your first-grade teacher doing when you filed in after recess.

Those who get there first don't get to choose a nice location. Instead, they are led to the bottom rows, not exactly a prime view of the field, particularly from the end zone. So, the later you come, the higher up you get to sit.

It also gave us a bird's-eye view of the handful of students who would eventually be escorted out of the stands for underage drinking. I'm not sure what happens to them after they are escorted to the bowels of the stadium, but I'm sure it costs them a fine most can ill afford and probably a letter home to mom and dad from the dean.

It's been over 30 years now since the "wise" leaders of our nation decided to start treating our young men and women — you know, the ones who can go fight and die or get maimed in our wars, can legally get married and have kids, and can legally buy a car or even a house — like kids themselves.

Up until 1984, Wisconsin and several other states allowed 19-year-olds to buy and consume alcohol (in fact, in Wisconsin the drinking age was 18 from 1972 until 1984, when it was raised to age 19. In many parts of the state, until 1984 it had been legal to drink beer at age 18 for many decades.) It was then, in 1984, that Ronald Reagan signed a bill that would punish states that didn't raise their drinking age to 21 by cutting 5 percent of their highway aids the first year and 10 percent every year thereafter.

In other words, blackmail.

Gov. Tony Earl favored keeping the age at 19, but gave in when it became apparent the state could lose several million dollars annually in reduced highway aid.

The new 21 law, like Prohibition in the '20s, didn't really cut down on drinking — it sent it to the modern-day speakeasies. And that, of course, spurred raids by the cops followed by huge fines and even jail.

Back then I wrote in a Plain Talk: "After reading all these stories about the crackdown on student drinking parties around campus, I can't help but wonder if we're not making criminals out of our 19- and 20-year-olds these days. ... I can't help but wonder what we've accomplished except forcing our young people to go underground, sneaking beers like we used to sneak cigarettes behind the barn."

Sure, I understood the arguments that the highways would be safer if the age was raised to 21. But I also understood that young people off on their own would find their own ways to get beer and booze and that those apartment parties would encourage more drinking. You throw in five bucks to help pay for the stuff so you're determined to get your money's worth. Then you leave the party to raise hell someplace else.

At least in a bar there's some semblance of supervision.

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The drinking age issue was revived earlier this month when a couple of legislators introduced a bill to lower the age back to 19. (When I went to the UW, the age was 18, but in those years was limited to beer.)

It, of course, stands little chance of becoming law. The state's highway funds are in bad enough shape now without losing another 5 to 10 percent.

But perhaps this issue ought to be revived at the national level. A uniform age throughout the country would be preferable to having states set their own age limits.

Meanwhile, though, we'll continue making criminals of our young people partaking in a vice in which the vast majority of other adults routinely indulge.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel

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Dave is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.