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Detractors say San Diego's annual Over-the-Line is over-the-top

Raunchy and raucous, the annual beach bacchanal has a steadfast constituency. A lawsuit alleges that city officials are playing favorites by denying a permit for a more sedate party elsewhere.

June 23, 2013|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • Teams participate in San Diego's Over-the-Line tournament. The annual beach bacchanal has both its steadfast constituency and its vocal detractors, including a professor who says it's an example of the “pornification of popular culture." A lawsuit claims that city officials are playing favorites by denying a permit for a much smaller, more sedate party elsewhere.
Teams participate in San Diego's Over-the-Line tournament. The… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

SAN DIEGO — Raunchy and raucous, the annual beach bacchanal that is the Over-the-Line tournament nevertheless has a steadfast constituency in City Hall and the local media.

Now a lawsuit has been filed alleging that San Diego city officials are playing favorites, issuing a permit for Over-the-Line to use public property — Fiesta Island on Mission Bay — while denying a similar permit to a group wanting to throw a much smaller, more sedate party elsewhere on the beach.

The lawsuit may be a long shot, but the civic reaction was instantaneous.

The city attorney moved quickly in hopes of settling the case so the 60th annual Over-the-Line tourney can proceed over two weekends in July. The activist mayor is watching, as are anxious members of the City Council.

"No OTL this year? Is this the end of Rico?" said Carl Luna, political science professor at San Diego Mesa College, using a classic line from the gangster movie "Little Caesar."

News coverage has been tinged with a sense of horror that Over-the-Line is threatened. "Don't Mess With San Diego's Iconic Beach Tournament," ordered the editorial page of the U-T San Diego.

A group called alleges that a boosterish attitude by officials has led city employees to favor Over-the-Line while rejecting other groups. Over-the-Line's organizer, the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club, should have been required to do an environmental impact report, asserted in its Superior Court lawsuit.

The plaintiffs have offered a plan that would allow both their event and Over-the-Line. So far, it has not been accepted.

As the group's lawsuit notes, the city turned down its public records request for documents indicating how the police chief determined that Over-the-Line follows city rules that allow alcohol only at defined "beer gardens" and ban anyone from wandering around in beer-can hats or guzzling suds from funnels.

Negotiations last week between the city attorney, the attorney for Over-the-Line, and attorney Cory Briggs, representing, failed to resolve the matter. More talks may take place before Over-the-Line is set to begin July 13.

"In San Diego, there seems to be one set of rules for Over-the-Line and one for the rest of us," Briggs said.

The issue "reflects a characteristic of San Diego: the tendency to act like a small town, where city fathers grant special favors to established old favorite sons, without realizing the rest of the family might get jealous," Luna said.

At its heart, Over-the-Line involves three-person teams playing a variant of softball. But that's like saying that Mardi Gras is a parade; it's true, but incomplete.

Over-the-Line team names — heard over a public address system — use every double-entendre imaginable. Names for the women's teams are often as shocking as the men's. The only topics off-limits are references to the 1978 PSA airliner crash over the city and anything derogatory about John Wayne.

Large amounts of beer are consumed. Men roam the sandy grounds asking women to bare their breasts; some comply as cameras click.

Among supporters, Over-the-Line is seen as a release from workaday problems and restraints — San Diego's contribution to Southern California's beach culture.

"It was a touch of genius to come up with a reason for adult men to put aside the worries and responsibilities of family and fortune to go play at the beach," said John Beatty, a longtime local television journalist, now retired.

Not everyone is so cheery about the event, which last year brought 50,000 players and spectators.

Over-the-Line is an example of the "pornification of popular culture," said Lori Watson, associate professor of philosophy and director of women's and gender studies at the University of San Diego.

"Women displaying their breasts to crowds of drunken, raucous men is very dangerous," Watson said, leading to the "sexualization of girls at a younger age" and a stigma aimed at women who are unwilling to disrobe.

As a matter of behavior, there are fewer arrests and drunken fights at Over-the-Line than at the average San Diego Chargers game at Qualcomm Stadium, certainly far fewer than the average Chargers-Raiders game, city officials said.

To get its city permit, the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club is required to provide security, and uses off-duty San Diego police officers.

"We pale in comparison with what goes on at a Chargers game," said John Tefft, a club spokesman and longtime member. "We're all old guys now. We don't like to mix it up."

The athletic club's members include pilots, architects, lawyers and business owners. Over-the-Line is the group's major fundraiser for the year, clearing up to $50,000 after as much as $500,000 is paid for fencing, security, portable toilets, standby ambulances and other necessities.

The club contributes to a range of local causes: youth sports, presents for underprivileged kids at Christmas, programs for military families, fundraisers for cancer and muscular dystrophy research. For that reason, every mayor in memory has been an Over-the-Line booster.

Said John Kern, former chief of staff to then-Mayor Dick Murphy: "Over-the-Line is the child in all of us who forever yearns to be immature."

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