Rio Rio on The San Antonio Riverwalk advertises itself as the "Official Home of TCU". Photo by Scott Ball.
Rio Rio Cantina on the San Antonio River Walk advertises itself as the "Official Home of TCU" ahead of the 23rd annual Alamo Bowl. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Getting drunk on San Antonio’s River Walk is big business. It’s especially so in the days before and after big college sports events like the annual Alamo Bowl. Tens of thousands of students, alumni and fans come to San Antonio for the big bowl game, the moderate winter weather, and the cheap drinks pushed by certain bars.

Tens of millions of dollars flow into the local economy from big downtown events like the Final Four and the Alamo Bowl. The numbers might be less impressive if we could see the breakdown in food, alcohol, and room sales, and how much stays in the local economy and how much flows to out-of-town business owners who operate the chain hotels, restaurants and bars.

The majority of the city’s tourists and conventioneers drink and act responsibly, and the finer establishments on and off the River Walk operate with decorum. But there are a significant number of venues where cheap drinks, plentiful shots, and partying hard are the rule. You can drink to excess and beyond as long as you can stand up or get around with the help of friends and don’t cause trouble.

As closing time approaches, tolerant police mostly look the other way as patrons stumble back to their hotels. It usually takes a jackass to provoke them. After all, the drunks aren’t behind the wheel of a car threatening others, and our jails aren’t big enough to hold all the people under the influence on any given holiday night.

The behavior of Texas Christian University’s star quarterback, Trevone Boykin in the early morning hours of Dec. 31 was indefensible. Breaking the team’s midnight curfew with fellow teammates to sneak in a little after-hours drinking at Pat O’Brien’s on the River Walk, allowing a fellow drinker’s taunts to escalate into a fight, and then punching a San Antonio police officer certainly merited a night in jail and eventual prosecution on the charges.

The West Family, TCU fans and Valero Alamo Bowl attendees pose for a photo in front of Pat O'Briens bar. Photo by Scott Ball.
The West Family, TCU fans and Alamo Bowl attendees pose for a photo in front of Pat O’Brien’s on Friday after hearing about the Wednesday night arrest of TCU’s quarterback at the bar. Photo by Scott Ball.

Boykin was charged with a third degree felony for assaulting a public servant and released on a $5,000 bond late Thursday morning. He and TCU wide receiver Preston Miller were both suspended from the team and will miss Saturday’s bowl game. It will be interesting to note the outcome of those felony charges some months from now when interest dies down. Most star athletes get away with a slap on the wrist. Decking a cop with a sucker punch might be a tougher charge to dodge, but I’d predict a plea deal to a misdemeanor.

You can read more details of the 2 a.m. altercation in the Express-News or at ESPN.com. The stories differ slightly, but both paint a bad picture of a troubled athlete, presumably under the influence, who acts as if the rules that apply to the rest of us do not apply to him. 

But they don’t apply to him, do they? Such displays of entitlement on the part of star college athletes is not new; it’s embedded in the culture of big universities that operate college sports programs as big business.

A lot of money is at stake. Schools like TCU and Oregon realize tens of millions of dollars in annual revenues from their sports programs. Universities like UT and Alabama earn more than $100 million a year.

In Las Vegas, the bookmakers responded quickly to the news from San Antonio. Before the incident, the Alamo Bowl was seen as one of the most interesting and competitive bowl games outside this year’s Alabama-Clemson College Football Playoff. Eleventh-ranked TCU was a one point favorite, but the odds flipped after Boykin’s arrest, and #15 Oregon is now favored by a point.

That’s what makes the action of university officials so hypocritical. Universities with winning-at-all-costs sports programs create the spoiled athletes who believe they are above the rules. Blatant bad behavior like Boykin’s that plays out publicly forces football coaches to impose punishment, but only when they have to do so. TCU might have “Christian” in its name, but the Fort Worth university has a lot riding financially on the football team’s performance. How TCU fares in the Alamo Bowl also could impact future recruitment.

Nationally ranked schools that don’t make it to the championship series covet invitations to bowl games in cities like San Antonio and New Orleans, where the nightlife assures a strong alumni and fan turnout.

The River Walk tourist bars and their front door barkers eagerly recruit the seasonal parade of visitors. Short of getting violent, you can drink all you can pay for and hold down. It’s an interesting spectacle to observe at, say, midnight, if you happen to be taking a sober stroll downtown. Two years ago, I worked a holiday season shift with Centro San Antonio’s Ambassador Amigos. That shift ended at 9 p.m. when the Streetsweeper Amigos took over, but by quitting time almost everyone on downtown streets and the River Walk who stopped us to ask for directions or help was drunk.

To be fair, locals hold their own on the downtown drinking front. I took a swing through downtown about an hour after the fireworks show ended at Hemisfair and the crowds began to head home. I watched as one man in a hoodie and sagging shorts screamed at his wife and small children to follow him across the street against the light even as traffic lurched to a stop near City Hall. A group of drunks bumping shoulders as one entered and the other exited the 7-Eleven convenience store exchanged hostilities and then dispersed. Traffic on South Flores Street heading south from West Commerce Street included vehicles careening between lanes without warning or signals, and other drivers doing their best to avoid them.

This is not the city San Antonio aspires to be, now or come 2020.

Centro San Antonio Ambassador Amigo (PSR) Neil Tait shows visitors from Denmark how to find the Alamo. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Centro San Antonio Ambassador Amigo Neil Tait shows (completely sober) visitors from Denmark how to find the Alamo from the River Walk in December 2013. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

This article surely will draw protests. Bar managers will cite policies for cutting off drunks, and note that bouncers routinely usher out the “over served” who get aggressive. That’s true, but it’s also public relations BS. The business plans of such establishments are based on maximizing consumption. Bars don’t ask football players if they are breaking curfew. They serve them.

What do coaches think the players are doing down here? Sending college age football players to spend nearly a week in River Walk hotels a few steps from the bars at the same time coaches are preaching curfew is a bit disingenuous, especially when the players’ friends are delivering advance scouting reports on the local watering holes and the best drink deals.

Tim Griffin, the longtime college football reporter for the Express-News, noted in his story that this isn’t the first time the Alamo Bowl has been tainted by player misbehavior. Four years ago, University of Texas quarterback Case McCoy and linebacker Jordan Hicks were sent packing before Texas played Oregon State after they were accused of involvement in an alleged sexual assault of a woman at a River Walk hotel. To no one’s real surprise, no charges were filed and both players were accepted back on the team.

Pat O’Brien’s, a bar with a front door at 121 Alamo Plaza and a back door on the River Walk, won’t miss a beat. If anything, Thursday morning’s incident will fuel greater interest in the bar now and after the game, regardless of who wins on Saturday. Have another Hurricane, friend, only $5.50 on Thursdays. You’re sitting right where Boykin was sitting. 

San Antonio’s River Walk cash registers will ring and ring in the New Year. Many drunk and happy fans will stumble back to their hotel rooms and eventually make their way home with good memories of their time in San Antonio. A few weeks from now, we will get the economic impact numbers.

Just remember: The numbers don’t tell the whole story. 

*Top image: Rio Rio Cantina on the San Antonio River Walk advertises itself as the “Official Home of TCU.”  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.