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Notre Dame recruit dies in spring break hotel balcony fall

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(NOTE: Update following April 3 afternoon police news conference is at the end of the piece.)

I’ll reserve any judgments about the circumstances surrounding the April 2 death of 17-year-old Matt James, a Notre Dame football recruit from Cincinnati who fell from a hotel balcony in Panama City, Fla., where he was celebrating his final high school spring break. There are already enough Internet yobbos questioning his parents or slamming Catholics or doing something to make it sound like James deserved his demise — which, of course, he didn’t.

However, I will say that whether your high schooler is a big-time football recruit, an average athlete or a member of the show choir, there are places other than Panama City you would rather have him or her go for a parent-free vacation.

James isn’t even the first 2010 Panama City spring breaker to die from a hotel balcony fall. A 19-year-old Georgia college freshman, a former high school football player, died March 25 from a similar fall. An autopsy has been performed, but results aren’t expected until May or June. Local authorities and hotel managers, though, say there’s two endemic problems that result in falls: either heavy alcohol use and/or the pastime of trying to crawl, Spiderman-style, up the outside of the hotel by climbing the balconies. Two other spring breakers have fallen off of balconies and survived.

Speaking of alcohol, in its “Operation Spring Break 2010” in March, the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverage and Tobacco police reported 1,092 arrests statewide in its crackdown on underage drinking — with 1,004 of those arrests in Panama City and its environs. That area had six times the number of arrests as six other targeted cities combined.

The alcohol police arrest numbers for Panama City were actually down slightly from last year, but police have an explanation for that: more violent crime has them more occupied with things other than underage drinking. Panama City police themselves have reported a 144 percent spike in spring break-related crime from the previous year, and they noted having to deal with more situations such as the near-critical shooting of a 20-year-old Birmingham, Ala. man. That crime is going to be difficult to solve because police report, as they do at many sites at spring break when they arrive, a hostile, uncooperative crowd.

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Some out-of-towners meet the local constabulary.

These are the sorts of problems that caused other Florida cities, such as Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach, to take steps to drive out spring break business. However, despite tension from the community and older snowbirds, the authorities of Panama City are hardly ready to drive out what is a major moneymaker.

In a rather bizarre column, Panama City News Herald editor Mike Cazalas, whose paper has special spring break sections in print and online, including bikini contest shots, noted that the problem is not spring break, but alcohol.

Well, yes, Spring Break is about the money. So is summer tourist season, the restaurant business, moped rentals, the military bases and every job held by every person in this county.

There are other factors, of course: quality of life and enjoyment and such. But money is a part of all of it.

What is it really about, though, this hatred of Spring Break? Is it about tourists who come down and use something we perceive to be “ours,” to the point that we can’t get to it for a few weeks out of the year?

If, for some, it is a belief we are “promoting” dangerous activities with no regard for safety, I’d suggest that is naïve.

College-age kids die tragic deaths, they do it year-round, and they don’t have to come to Panama City Beach to find a balcony.

The message I get from that column is, “Hey, college kids! If you’re going to die a stupid, alcohol-soaked death, at least come to Panama City and drop some coin before you go!”

More details are expected to come in Matt James’ death, such as whether alcohol was involved. Regardless, it’s a horrible thing that’s happened. Though I hope James at least the courtesy to frequent some of the Panama City News Herald’s advertisers while he was there.

UPDATE, 3 p.m. CT, April 3: Panama City police, in a Saturday afternoon news conference, said witnesses described the 6-foot-6, 290-pound Matt James as drunk and “belligerent” before his fatal fall from a fifth-floor Days Inn balcony at 6:30 p.m. April 2. From the Cincinnati Enquirer, which covered James when he was a star offensive lineman at St. Xavier High School:

At one point, police said, he went out to the balcony to argue with guests in a neighboring room, leaned over and fell. Police believe there were adult chaperones, although it was unclear where they were when the accident happened.

Police also said his death appeared to be from blunt force trauma, although the official cause, along with toxicology results, may not be released for another six to eight weeks.

There were adult chaperones? Oh boy. That just makes it worse.