Why is the Drinking Age 21?

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In short, we ended up with a national minimum age of 21 because of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. This law basically told states that they had to enact a minimum drinking age of 21 or lose up to 10 percent of their federal highway funding. Since that's some serious coin, the states fell into line fairly quickly. Interestingly, this law doesn't prohibit drinking per se; it merely cajoles states to outlaw purchase and public possession by people under 21. Exceptions include possession (and presumably drinking) for religious practices, while in the company of parents, spouses, or guardians who are over 21, medical uses, and during the course of legal employment.

That answers the legal question of why the drinking age is 21, but what was the underlying logic of the original policy? Did lawmakers just pick 21 out of a hat because they wanted college seniors to learn the nuances of bar culture before graduation? Not quite. The concept that a person becomes a full adult at age 21 dates back centuries in English common law; 21 was the age at which a person could, among other things, vote and become a knight. Since a person was an official adult at age 21, it seemed to make sense that they could drink then, too.

WHO WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR LOWERING THE DRINKING AGE TO 18 FOR PART OF THE 20TH CENTURY, THOUGH?

Believe it or not, Franklin Roosevelt helped prompt the change in a rather circuitous fashion. FDR approved lowering the minimum age for the military draft from 21 to 18 during World War II. When the Vietnam-era draft rolled around, though, people were understandably a bit peeved that 18-year-old men were mature enough to fight, but not old enough to vote. Thus, in 1971 the states ratified the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18. Legislators started applying the same logic to drinking. The drinking age, which the 21st Amendment made the responsibility of individual states, started dropping around the country.

Critics of the change decried rises in alcohol-related traffic fatalities among 18- to 20-year-old drivers in areas where the drinking age had been lowered. Indeed, one result of leaving states in charge of their own age was the creation of "blood borders" between states that allowed 18-year-olds to drink and those that didn't. Teenagers from the more restrictive state would drive into the one where they could buy booze, drink, and then drive home, which created a perfect storm for traffic fatalities. Even if teens weren't any more predisposed than older adults to drive after they'd been drinking, all of this state-hopping meant that those who did drive drunk had to drive greater distances to get home than their older brethren, who could just slip down the block for a beer or six. More miles logged in a car meant more opportunities for a drunken accident.

WHO LED THE BACK-TO-21 MOVEMENT?

Organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving began agitating for a uniform national drinking age of 21 to help eliminate these blood borders and keep alcohol out of the hands of supposedly less-mature 18-year-olds. As a result, President Reagan signed the aforementioned National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. MADD's "Why 21?" website touts that, "More than 25,000 lives have been saved in the U.S. thanks to the 21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age." Traffic reports show a 61 percent decrease in alcohol-related fatalities among drivers under 21 between 1982 and 1998. Raw numbers show that drunk driving fatalities have definitely dropped since the early 1980s; since 1982, drunk driving fatalities have decreased 51 percent. Among drivers under 21, drunk driving-related deaths have decreased by 80 percent.

Teasing out the underlying cause of this reduction in total fatalities is no mean feat, though. Non-alcohol traffic fatalities have also declined relative to the number of miles driven over the same time period, which could be attributed to any number of causes, including increased seat belt usage, the widespread use of airbags, and other safety improvements to cars and roads. Moreover, drinking and driving for the whole population might be down as the result of increased education on its consequences, harsher penalties, improved enforcement, or increased stigmatization of drunk driving.

College presidents who supported the Amethyst Initiative—a movement launched in 2008 to reconsider the national drinking age of 21—admit that drunk driving is a serious problem, but they point out that it's not the only potential pitfall for young drinkers. They contend that by lowering the drinking age, colleges would be able to bring booze out into the open and educate students on responsible consumption. Such education might help curb alcohol poisoning, drunken injuries, drinking-fueled violence, and alcoholism on campuses.

Interesting bit of trivia: the group takes its name from the character Amethyst in Greek mythology. She ran afoul of a drunken Dionysus, who had her turned into white stone. When the god discovered what he'd done, he poured wine on the stone, turning it into the purple rock we know as amethyst. Ancient Greeks wore the mineral as a form of protection from drunkenness.

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Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?

Elsa, Getty Images
Elsa, Getty Images

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team was founded in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions will host the Chicago Bears.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?

The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Washington Redskins on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?

In 2006, because six-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the New Orleans Saints will welcome the Atlanta Falcons.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

What’s That Thing That Hangs Off a Turkey’s Face?

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iStock.com/JZHunt

That thing is called a snood. And it's there to let the other turkeys know that its owner is kind of a big deal.

When a male turkey—known as a tom—wants to mate, he faces two hurdles. One is his potential mates, the female turkeys (a.k.a. hens). In the realm of turkey mating, the hens wield the power of choice and the toms have to get their attention and win the opportunity to reproduce. Come mating season, a tom will strut around, gobble, puff out his chest, fan his tail, and drag his wings to attract the hens, who then pick which of the toms they’ll mate with.

The second problem for a tom looking for love is the other toms in the area. They’re all competing for the same limited number of hens. Sometimes a good mating display isn’t enough to win a mate, and toms will attack and fight each other to secure a hen. 

This is where the snood comes in. That goofy-looking piece of dangling flesh helps a tom both with choosy hens and with competition from rival males. Having a long snood almost always means that a hen will want to mate with him and that another tom will back down from a fight.

DUDES AND THEIR SNOODS

When two toms are trying to establish dominance, they’ll size each other up. Then they'll either fight, or one will flee.

In the late 1990s, Richard Buchholz, an animal behaviorist who focuses on turkeys, wanted to figure out which, if any, characteristics of a tom turkey could predict how they fare in dominance fights. That is, did bigger turkeys tend to win more scuffles? Did older ones? He also wanted to see if the turkeys used any of these predictive cues when sizing each other up. He looked at various characteristics of dominant toms that fight and win, and compared them to those of subordinate toms that lose fights or run from them. Of all the characteristics he looked at, only “relaxed snood length” seemed to be a reliable predictor of how a tom would do in bird-vs-bird combat. The dominant males, the ones who won fights and got a choice mate, had longer snoods.

With that in mind, Buchholz looked at how toms reacted to other toms with snoods of varying sizes. The birds tended to avoid confrontation with other males with longer snoods, and wouldn’t even feed near them. A big snood, this suggests, says to the other turkeys that this is a tom you don’t want to tangle with. Buchholz noted that snood length correlates with age, body mass, and testosterone, so, to competitors, the snood could be a good indicator of a tom’s aggressiveness, age/experience, size, and overall condition and fighting ability.

IN THE SNOOD FOR LOVE

Once the males have established who’s going to have a chance to mate, the final choice goes to the hen. While the mating display is the main draw for getting a hen to check him out, a tom’s snood helps him out again here.

Like it did for the other males, a tom’s snood signals a lot of information to a female assessing potential mates—it indicates how old and how big he is, and even says something about his health. In another study, Buchholz found that longer-snooded toms carried fewer parasites. If a hen wanted to choose a mate with good genes that might help her offspring grow large, live long, and avoid parasites, a tom’s snood is a good advertisement for his genes. In that study, hens showed a clear preference for toms with longer snoods. In another experiment years later, Buchholz found that healthy hens again showed a strong preference for long snoods and that hens with their own parasite problems were less picky about snood length and checked out more potential mates—perhaps, Buchholz thinks, because the hens recognized their own susceptibility to infection and were willing to invest more time searching for a tom with genes for parasite resistance that would complement their own—but still showed some preference for longer ones.

While a snood might look goofy to us, for a turkey, it’s integral to the mating game, signaling to other toms that they should get out of his way and letting hens know that he’s got what they’re looking for.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2013.

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