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You Go, Bud Girl!

The Women's National Basketball Association has broken new ground in Y2K. Players in the men's pro leagues must wait till they retire before doing alcohol ads, but WNBA all-star Lisa Leslie just teamed up with Bud Light to end that tradition, and to overcome a grave social injustice -- the fact that no demographic consumes alcohol LESS than black women.
 
 
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Lisa Leslie is doing it all for the WNBA Los Angeles Sparks this season. She's scoring 17.8 points per game, grabbing 9.4 rebounds and blocking 2.4 shots. Impressive as those figures are, they've been surpassed by many NBA greats. But Leslie has done something in 2000 that Larry Bird, Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan couldn't do in the best year of his career: star in a beer commercial.

Lisa Leslie is a Bud Girl. I mean a Bud Woman. Better make it a Bud Light Woman.

Leslie doesn't actually drink Bud Light in the mini comic-drama, nor does she explicitly encourage others to imbibe. But it's a Bud Light commercial, and she's the star.

It begins with Leslie staring into her shoe closet for something to match her slinky red dress when her handsome beau calls out, "Honey, we're gonna be late." She has hundreds of pairs to choose from, but, alas, none seems right for a romantic date: They're all sneakers. We cut away from her closet to video clips of Leslie taking it strong to the hoop and swishing a jumpshot. For viewers wondering who this gorgeous, graceful athlete is, the words "Lisa Leslie WNBA Star" appear on the screen. Then we cut to the nightclub, where Leslie and her beau are slowdancing. But she's embarrassed because her red-and-white Nike hightops squeak with every move. A voiceover announces that "Bud Light is proud to sponsor the WNBA and the 2000 U.S. Olympic Team," at which point the Bud Light and USA Olympic logos light up a portion of the screen as Leslie continues to wince with each squeaky step.

Active NBA players, like their counterparts in baseball, football and hockey, are banned from beer commercials. Even though the men's leagues have "official beers" (or in the NBA's case, an "official beer sponsor"), commissioners draw the line at player endorsements. Of course, many active players drink alcohol, most without abusing it. But the leagues fear the bad PR that might ensue if an all-star pitcher and pitchman had to check into rehab or killed someone while driving under the influence of the official beer. So John Elway, Bill Russell, Billy Martin, Howie Long and countless others had to wait till they hung up their uniform before hawking their favorite brew.

Speculation on why the WNBA felt compelled to break new ground has focused on the tragic state of young African American women. Although they supply many of the league's players and a significant segment of fans, they lag far behind their white sisters in the stat that matters most to the league's official beer sponsor: alcohol consumption.

The 1998 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse found that 21 percent of white girls 12-17 had used alcohol within the past month, but only 13 percent of black girls. While 65 percent of white women 18-25 had used alcohol within the past month, only 50 percent of black women had imbibed.

Painting an even bleaker picture is the Harvard School of Public Health's 1999 "College Alcohol Study." Women collegians as a whole fared admirably, with 20.6 percent identified as "frequent binge drinkers" -- defined as consuming four or more drinks in a row (five or more for men) on at least three occasions in the previous two weeks -- nearly equal the 26.0 percent of college men. Sadly, black women contributed little to the strong showing. Only 6.5 percent of all black students frequently binged, and the black-women subset probably fell short of that pathetic figure. Thus, white college women were three times more likely than their black sisters to regularly get hammered.

Budweiser's "Whassup?" campaign has sounded a wake-up call to black male collegians. One can only hope that Bud Light role model Leslie will do the same for black women.

A striking feature of WNBA broadcasts is the number of commercials aimed at young girls. Nike runs several clever spots featuring 8-to-12-year-old girls who are either playing sports or trading neighborhood kids the way a hot-shot general manager would. An on-screen message asserts it's just a matter of time before we have a WNFL or WMLB (Major League Baseball). State Farm ads show girls playing a variety of games as the insurance giant boasts of its support for women's sports -- "Because little girls have big dreams, too." And of course there's a steady flow of spots for Bud Light and a new lemon-flavored alcoholic beverage called Doc Otis.

But surely the alcohol ads are for adults, not kids? Actually, they're for both. It's been Budweiser strategy for decades to forge brand identification in the young via wonderdog Spuds MacKenzie and a host of other lovable or irascible animals, including mice, ferrets, frogs, beavers and lizards, all of whom help children develop mature, responsible attitudes towards alcohol. It's good business to target young girls who idolize Leslie and the other WNBA stars, because many of those girls are about to begin their drinking careers -- if they haven't already.

"In 1965, just 7 percent of girls said they'd had their first drink between ages 10 and 14; in 1995, the figure was up to 31 percent," reports Parade Magazine (Dec. 12, 1999). Parade pointed out that by drinking at earlier ages, girls are "at greater risk for alcohol problems later in life" -- not to mention right now. But that's someone else's concern. It certainly isn't Budweiser's or the WNBA's.

You go, Bud Girl!

Dennis Hans is a satirist and pundit whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Tompaine.com and Mother Jones, among others, and can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu.