April 17, 2008

It's a frigid, rainy night in Bloomington, just hours after the 58th annual Little 500 bike race. The streets are mostly empty. A few hardy souls have ventured into the wind and rain in search of a party. Sparse packs of three or four people lope into quiet houses all over town, and the bars are doing decent business. Somewhere on the south side of town a group of buddies open up the trunk of a car to let out their friend who had been riding in it because there wasn't enough room in the seats.

But conspicuously missing from the scene are the elements that the bike race has become famous for: parties, parties, more parties and an occasional riot in the streets. The cold and rain have finished off whatever hopes there may have been for a raucous ending to an already disappointing Little 500 weekend.

Where did our country go wrong? Or at least, where did IU go wrong? When an event with a reputation for inspiring outright debauchery and indulgence fails to create more than a peep among college students, it's time to reexamine what we're feeding our kids. For 58 years now, the Little 5 has been a centerpiece in IU's athletic itinerary, but more than that, it used to be an excuse for students to break free from the stress of the semester and take to the streets in a week of absolute, unbridled partydom.

Stories abound about the "good old days" when the streets of Bloomington were literally flooded with people, including hordes of out-of-towners swarming the city like Goths sacking Rome, coming to stake a claim in the fun.

But those days seem long gone. About a decade ago, local police agencies had decided they'd had enough of an overflowing drunk tank and initiated some serious cracking down. This year, the cops put all their officers on 12-hour shifts and even had detectives don the blue and take to the streets for uniform detail so they'd have as many hands on ticket books and drunk students as possible. Yet only 75 minors were tagged for alcohol possession over the course of the weekend. A sad state of affairs, indeed.

And this year's Little 5 started out with so much promise. The weather was turning to a beautiful shade of spring and college girls were trading fur-lined coats for flip-flops, the air was brimming with possibility. From every direction, city sounds were pierced by young voices impatient at getting to the party.

"I hope there aren't a lot of po-po's around here because I'm underage," said one girl as she got into a car with a group of friends.

In fact, the women's race, held a day before the men's race, was heavily populated and because the weather was so nice, girls were strutting in their daytime red-light best. The women's Little 5: half the distance, twice the skin.

But that night, after the women's race, the scene was fairly dismal. The streets were clear even though the bars were packed. The sweet spring air became plummeting mercury as a huge spring storm rolled across the middle of the country. People looking to warm up with an alcohol blanket waited in long lines to get into the bars, but it was barely more interesting than a usual Saturday night in downtown Bloomington.

As anyone who knows the history of Little 5 can attest to, the promise was parties. Lots of parties, the kind of college legend. It used to be that there was an open door and a red plastic cup full of cheap beer awaiting passers by. But the partying this year happened in the bars, where it's legally allowed to happen. The controlled chaos of establishment partying; there's no quicker way to tame (or kill) the college spirit.

One thing you can definitely forget about for good is partying with the frats and sororities. They're not the meccas of unbridled undergraduate passion they were once depicted as being. Animal House is dead. After getting into plenty of trouble which cost lots of people lots of money, the open doors turned to velvet ropes and "welcome in" became "who do you know?"

Perhaps the frats' and sororities' elitism is based on something legitimate. After all, the costs of insuring chapters can be mind-numbing, especially since there aren't a large number of companies that will offer them policies. And having to answer to national chapters for wrecking property or explaining having to take someone to the emergency room for alcohol poisoning doesn't seem like it would be cool at all. But on the other hand, it's hard not to feel as though there is a sort of looking-down-the-nose gaze on the back of your head as you walk through a crowd of sorority girls.

So, the Little 5 sucked this year. It could be blamed on the cops, it could be blamed on snobbish Greeks. Maybe the weather just sucked. Either way, a total reappraisal of the situation is in order and the question lingers: where did we go wrong?

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