Spirits high in beer pong


P.J. Horan wore his lucky outfit to the Maryland beer pong championships: a knit cap, silver shades, an old yellow shirt and a black shirt with skulls that read "got rum?" When he's actually playing the game, which involves lobbing balls across a table into cups of beer, he gets juiced up by listening to 1980s bands and the soundtrack from the boxing movie Rocky on a Minidisc player.

"Let's put it this way: I go to University of Maryland and they are top 50 in football, baseball and basketball. I can't play sports there because they're so good," Horan semi-shouted over the din, a Bud Light and a bag of sunflower seeds in front of him. "This is the most competition I've had since high school. I love competition."

Horan, 22, was one of 42 players who faced off yesterday over five specially designed beer pong tables littered with cups, beer bottles and pitchers. The two-person teams - with such names as the Wight Leights and Baltimorons - were vying for the state title and the chance to win a spot at January's inaugural World Series of Beer Pong in Nevada.

The popularity of beer pong, a drinking game that could only have been invented by college students, has grown exponentially in recent years, giving rise to a cottage industry that sells beer pong paraphernalia and organizes leagues and tournaments like the one that took place yesterday at Griffin's West Street Grill in Annapolis. But this boom has also made way for legions of critics who say such games encourage reckless drinking and dangerous behavior, especially in young people.

In a recent flap, Anheuser-Busch discontinued its national promotion of "Bud Pong" after a story in The New York Times pointed out that participants were - shockingly - using beer, not water, to play the game. At some colleges, administrators have banned beer pong.

"I'm really alarmed about it," said Teri Hall, the assistant vice principal for campus life at Towson University. "I just think that beer pong is not a good idea. It's not good for our students."

School administrators recently decided to outlaw beer pong at tailgate parties, said Hall, who had the job of shutting down matches at yesterday's football game. "We felt strongly that we have to nip it in the bud," she said. "Beer pong doesn't encourage responsible alcohol use."

She was "disappointed" when told that one of the Maryland championship qualifying rounds was held at a bar in a university-owned building that's virtually on campus.

"I'm going to make sure it doesn't happen again," she said.

`A social thing'

Beer pong enthusiasts seem genuinely vexed by the negative attention their game has garnered.

Jim Reiter, a bartender from Laurel and the co-founder of the company that produced yesterday's tournament, defended the game heartily. "It's a social thing," said Reiter, 24. "Some people play because it's competitive and fun. ... Some play because it reminds them of when they were younger."

Participants in his tournaments and league games must be at least age 21 to play, and the beer-drinking, he stressed, is optional.

"It's not about getting drunk," he said.

Billy Gaines, the 24-year-old Ohio law school student organizing the World Series of Beer Pong, protested that beer pong can't be blamed for alcohol overconsumption on college campuses.

"What does it matter if they're throwing PingPong balls in a cup and drinking if they're going to drink anyway?" he said. "The game itself actually slows down my drinking as opposed to drinking shots and chugging beers."

But according to several studies, people drink more rapidly when they're playing drinking games than they otherwise would, said Tom Johnson, a psychology professor at Indiana State University who studies the phenomenon. "What our research suggests is that the big reason high school and college students play drinking games, in addition to socializing and meeting people, is to get drunk," he said.

Because some rules require losers to drink, the game could lead to the possibility of targeting people as a form of hazing or as a precursor to sexual assault, Johnson said. His studies focus on college students, but even tournaments aimed at adults could have an impact on underage drinkers, he said, by normalizing or glorifying heavy drinking.

Health issues

Administrators at St. John's College in Annapolis actively discourage the game and are considering outlawing it, said Chris Aamot, director of student services. Because players share drinks and - in some cases - are required to slurp up the beers the balls land in, the game has potential to spread diseases, he pointed out.

"Personally, I find it absolutely disgusting," he said.

But try telling that to the mostly 20-something contestants at Griffin's yesterday, as they high-fived, cheered, slapped backs, tossed balls and downed beers.

"There are no losers," Maryanne Muhl, 27, of Catonsville said between pumping her fist and hooting for her friends. "How can you be a loser when you're drinking during the game?"

Dean Knight, 23, of Westminster used to play soccer and run cross country, but after breaking his back in an accident at work last year, beer pong is the only competitive sport he can still participate in, he said.

"It's a pastime," he said. "I don't have to remember everything I've gone through. Instead of feeling 75 and walking with a cane, I can feel a little younger."


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