NEAR THE beginning of the baseball season, Philadelphia Phillie center fielder Lenny Dykstra, 28, smashed up his Mercedes, his body and a teammate. Dykstra had a blood alcohol content level nearly twice the legal limit for driving while intoxicated in Pennsylvania.
The news, coming as it did so quickly after jockey Willie Shoemaker, 60, paralyzed himself in a similar incident, had many people asking questions about what only can be described as the intoxicating relationship between professional sports and the alcoholic beverage industry.
In recent years, with the country's focus on the use of illicit drugs, those questions haven't been asked often enough. Alcohol is still the economic fuel that keeps the American sports machine running.
Last year Anheuser-Busch and Miller, the top two beer producers, spent at least $225 million promoting their products during football, baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer games to reach the audience -- men between 18 and 29 -- that drinks the most beer. Coors, shut out of the most popular sporting events because of its competitors' exclusive contracts with the major-league franchises, television networks and stadiums, spent an additional $10 million to sponsor hundreds of events from sailing to rodeos.
Get the picture? Millions of Americans do, whether they're watching the playoffs and World Series at home or taking the kids to the stadium. America's favorite alcoholic beverage is more visible than any other consumer item, and while professional athletes may wait until after the game to get drunk, many fans do not.
A number of stadiums across the country (such as the Frederick Keys' park in Frederick) have begun to establish no-drinking sections for families wishing to avoid the rowdy behavior of drunks, but segregating non-drinkers does little to change an environment which cheers beer consumption more consistently than any single team or individual, no matter the sport.
How can a child ever develop any realistic perspective on alcohol when announcers trumpet, "This Bud's for you" after a home run? And why must a professional athlete suffer the tragic consequences of drinking and driving (often a reliable indicator of a serious problem with alcohol) before team owners realize that alcohol, too, is a drug and that treatment for alcoholism should be as readily available as treatment for cocaine addiction?
The beer companies and the team owners both argue that alcohol is a legal product that must be distinguished from other drugs. To counter criticism, the companies have developed public relations campaigns that promote "responsible drinking" with slogans such as "Know when to say when" or "Think when you drink." Unfortunately, most people -- on or off the playing field -- can't do either when they're under the influence of alcohol. As a result, more than 100,000 Americans die each year from alcohol-related causes which cost the nation an estimated $85 billion.
If the beer companies were genuinely concerned about promoting "responsible drinking," they could begin by publicizing the dietary guidelines released last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services. These guidelines define moderate drinking for adults as no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one for women. The guidelines also recommend that some people should abstain from alcoholic beverages entirely, including pregnant women, individuals who plan to drive, who are using medicines, who are alcoholic or who are under the legal drinking age.
It is unrealistic to expect the beer companies to promote these guidelines voluntarily because they know that 50 percent of the alcohol in this country is consumed by 10 percent of the drinking population. However, legislation before Congress could ensure that pro-drinking advertisements are balanced with information about the negative consequences of alcohol consumption. Both the Alcoholic Beverage Advertisement Act of 1991 and the Sensible Advertising and Family Education Act would require that a series of five rotating health and public safety messages -- similar in content to the recommendations that appear in the federal government's dietary guidelines -- be incorporated into any form of alcoholic beverage advertising, including printed materials.
So long as men between 18 and 29 continue to drink the most beer and watch the most athletic events, alcohol and sports will be inextricably linked. But isn't it about time that we started to exploit that relationship so that it serves the common good instead of allowing America's love of sports to enable us to deny that alcohol is the cause of our most extensive drug problem?
Robert K. White is chairman of the Maryland chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.