Culture

When Did Tailgating Go From a Pre-Game Drink to a Full-On Rager Complete With Flaming Tables?

Four years ago, Deadspin, then part of the now defunct Gawker Media Group, launched a recurring section dedicated to the parking-lot hijinks of Buffalo Bills fans. Since then, the section, titled #Billspin, has captured the notoriously hard-partying Bills Mafia getting obscenely drunk and engaging in a range of tailgating activities, including:

And those are just the SFW(ish) antics. Bills fans are just as horny as they are inebriated—they’ve been spotted trading blowjobs for jerseys, sticking their hands down each other’s pants during games and openly having sex during tailgates. (Not to be outdone, a Detroit Lions fan was caught eating ass in a bar parking lot near Ford Field, bringing new meaning to the term tailgate.) In fact, Bills tailgating is so infamous it was the subject of a Barstool Sports mini-documentary earlier this year.

This rampant degeneracy, however, is just part of a larger trend that’s transformed tailgating — a once tame pre-game ritual — into a spectacle of overconsumption. It’s a trend that exists along two distinct but parallel lines, with the Bills Mafia occupying one end of the spectrum, and the need to turn tailgating into an overwrought display of wealth, status and effort on the other.

Several sources trace the origins of American tailgating to the Civil War. In July 1861, citizens of Washington, D.C., packed their carriages with picnic baskets and traveled to nearby Manassas, Virginia, to witness what’s now known as the Battle of Bull Run. (Apparently, this is what people did for fun in the mid-19th century when they weren’t busy dying from cholera.)

It’s unclear how many asses were eaten that day, but the thrill of parking in an open field and observing condoned acts of violence would live on. According to Auburn University’s Food Systems Institute, the first football-related tailgate occurred eight years later at the very first American football game ever played between Princeton and Rutgers, though some credit Princeton’s Ivy League rival Yale with popularizing the custom.

Tailgating has since become an integral part of the football-watching ritual, especially on college campuses, where college students are wont to view the rowdiness of their tailgates as a source of pride. True to history, the best tailgates in the country are said to occur on campuses in the South (LSU, Ole Miss, Tennessee) and Midwest (Iowa, Nebraska, Penn State, Michigan).

“Tailgating is a very complex social, community-building exercise, not simply a wild party, during which fans are able to connect with and help create their school’s brand,” Notre Dame marketing professor and cultural anthropologist John Sherry said back in 2012 after completing a study on the topic. “Tailgating, for the fans, is literally helping to create Notre Dame, Michigan or USC.”

These days, though, that brand-building involves unprecedented levels of decadence. Conference play hasn’t even started, and we’ve already been gifted with these indelible moments of tailgating insanity.

A Kansas State fan biffing what was supposed to be a backflip onto a party tent.

An Iowa State student passed out on the grass, only to be brought back to life by the almighty power of cheap beer.

A male student at the University of Maine — which apparently has a football team — hiding under a car for a “stealth piss.”

And a highly intoxicated Michigan student mistaking a pole for a co-ed.

This is obviously fueled by social media, where college students view scenes of tailgating depravity and then share their own in the hopes of achieving 15 seconds of viral fame. (Indeed, many relatively sane Bills fans resent the image the fanbase now has, and lay the blame on smartphones.) “There’s a kind of one-upmanship involved,” sports historian John Greenberg told Forbes last year about college students and tailgating.

But that label can be applied to “refined” tailgaters, who now compete to throw the most ostentatious outdoor display possible. Take, for instance, GQ’s “Non-Slob Guide to Tailgating,” which was curated by men who have obviously never attended a tailgate. It suggests you spend $225 on a Theory button-down instead of, you know, a hoodie with your team’s logo on it. Esquire, meanwhile, recommends you wear a Brooks Brothers blazer, Oxford shirt and a fucking J. Crew tie, as if you were attending that very first tailgate hosted at Princeton in the 1860s.

On Pinterest, there’s an abundance of delicious tailgate recipes and adorable but entirely unnecessary tailgate-related DIY projects, such as how to craft placemats that look like fieldturf. E3 (a.k.a. Exclusive Event Experiences, the official tailgating partner of Chicago’s Soldier Field) provides luxury tailgating at Bears games. It ain’t cheap: Reserving a table of four will run you north of $700. It’s still cheaper, though, than this Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Woody Trailer, ideal for the man who’s both a football fan and insufferable whiskey snob, which costs $150,000 (or more than most Teslas).

The refined tailgating experience and the lawless one point in opposite directions, but they share the same impulse to make everything bigger, better and badder. It’s not enough to moonsault through a folding table; the table must be ablaze when said moonsault is executed. It’s not enough to simply grill a few burgers, have a few beers and play music from the car stereo; one must spend thousands of dollars renting a tailgating camper.

Tailgating’s history is a steady march toward more, simply for more’s sake.

Which, in the end, I guess isn’t much of a surprise. After all, that’s as American as football on Sundays.

John McDermott is a staff writer at MEL. He last wrote about the men who love Good Will Hunting the world over.

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