ON GLORIOUS spring mornings such as this, with the aroma of freshly spilled beer wafting in from Carroll County, a fellow's fancy naturally turns to Bubba Smith, who tried to explain it all so long ago.
Remember Bubba? After finishing his career as a large, carnivorous lineman for a team called the Baltimore Colts, Bubba turned to hustling beer for a living on TV commercials that became national legends. He was one of the original cast of lovable ex-jocks who plunged the nation into great intellectual debate over the merits of Miller Lite Beer, which included this Socratic dialogue:
Such language was the spiritual godfather of today's beer commercials, in which swamp-talking frogs, sunglass-sporting mice and other cuddly cartoon types pitch the stuff so ceaselessly, and so charmingly, that we're led inevitably to such current confrontations as the one involving teen-agers and school officials and a circuit court judge in Carroll County.
Bubba would have understood. Years of TV pitches have helped make the consumption of beer as natural a rite of passage to many teen-agers as getting a driver's license, going to the prom, or hiding in the bedroom and not speaking to Mom and Dad for eight weeks at a time.
Bubba was one of the first to publicly admit where we were headed, and to get a conscience about it. With considerable publicity, he walked away from his Miller Lite gig more than a dozen years ago, when he and the spots were still in the midst of their very own legend.
He was invited to be grand marshal at the homecoming parade of his alma mater, Michigan State University, an event he found disturbing, he declared, because "one side of the street started yelling `Tastes great,' and the other side would answer, `Less filling.' It just totally freaked me out.
"I didn't know what it was doing to the kids. Once I saw it, I thought, `I'm not going to do it any more.' How much money can you make before you ruin everybody?"
Actually, a lot. Today's airwaves are saturated with beer spots. They're the constant plugger of ballgames. Who watches these ballgames? In considerable measure, young people such as those in Carroll County who now find themselves in considerable trouble at Westminster High School.
A dozen of these kids have been suspended from extracurricular activities at school -- including sports -- because they attended a private party on Feb. 6 where minors were drinking. School policy provides punishment for any student knowingly "in close proximity" to underage drinking.
The dozen kids are upset by several factors. First, they say they weren't drinking at the party. Second, being barred from such activities as sports might affect their shot at a college athletic scholarship. Third, what right do school officials have to monitor their off-campus behavior, so long as the police haven't been called in?
Last week, the case reached Carroll County Circuit Court, where Judge Francis M. Arnold listened to two days of testimony and said, "I am going to consult with authorities and make a decision as soon as possible."
It's a case that transcends mere school rules or county laws. Carroll County's a conservative place, tough on substance abusers, tough on those who cause trouble in school. But it's also a place sensitive to issues of privacy.
While admitting that they attended the party, the kids contend they left quickly after noticing drinking. School officials say they didn't leave quickly enough. Parents say they don't condone the use of alcohol but insist that the school policy is extreme and shouldn't be allowed to affect kids' lives so dramatically.
It leaves us with a question: If school officials believe the kids didn't leave the party quickly enough after discovering alcohol being consumed, where should they go to escape a culture that's become inundated by the pitches for alcohol -- and those pitches are aimed specifically at high school and college kids?
Do you see middle-aged people in beer commercials? Nope. If you don't see cartoon frogs, or sunglass-sporting mice, you see young people rollicking about, having the time of their lives -- and the beer's part of the glad time.
It's the suds version of Joe Camel, who taught a generation of kids to take up smoking -- until Camel was pressured to alter its pitch.
It's understandable that Carroll County officials want to keep kids away from alcohol, and thus insist on standing by their tough policy. It's also understandable that parents and kids think the schools have cruelly overstepped their authority and haven't the right to invade anyone's privacy.
But it's an inevitable outgrowth of a culture that promotes such collision, and failed long ago to heed the warnings issued by a man who saw the future and stumbled onto his own conscience named Bubba Smith.
Pub Date: 3/21/99