-- Miller Brewing Co. targeted this weekend's broadcast of the NCAA Final Four for the debut of its latest ad, in which a pair of buxom women kick, claw and cavort -- ripping each other's clothes off in the process -- during a squabble over which brand of Miller beer is more satisfying.
But on the eve of the wildly popular basketball tournament, NCAA officials barred CBS from airing the commercial during the games, citing the controversial ad campaign's lack of taste.
"There has to be some sense of decorum in commercials," NCAA President Myles Brand explained.
Brand's move reflects the NCAA's attempt to draw a line of propriety in a relationship that has reaped dividends for both the beer industry and college sports, with colleges and universities delivering the demographic (affluent young males) that beer-makers covet, and the breweries, in turn, pouring in advertising revenue that helps cash-strapped athletic departments make ends meet.
But the relationship is coming under attack as concerns about binge drinking on college campuses escalate. Incidents of unruly fan behavior, postgame riots and the salacious content of the ads themselves have added to the brewing controversy. Now, some public-health professionals, academics and reform-minded critics say it's time colleges sever their ties with beer-makers altogether, including barring televised beer ads from broadcasts of games.
Individual campuses and conferences set their own policy regarding beer advertising during regular season games. The NCAA, which calls the shots for championship play, has taken measured, rather than absolutist, steps in addressing the alcohol issue.
The NCAA bans advertising of hard liquor during its championships. It limits the amount of beer and wine ads in game programs (no more than 14 percent of total advertising content). And it permits just 60 seconds per hour of televised tournament games to be devoted to ads for beer or wine.
For now, Brand simply isn't convinced that further restrictions would help solve the problem of under-age and binge drinking on campuses.
"If you just take the beer commercials out of college sports media, I'm not sure what effect that will have because beer commercials appear in many, many other places," Brand said.
Moreover, Brand isn't convinced that beer advertising encourages drinking among college students.
The Washington-based Beer Institute, which represents industry, insists it doesn't.
"There is no cause-and-effect relationship between beer commercials and whether people drink or not -- whether they're of legal age or underage," the Beer Institute's Jeff Becker said. "They don't cause people to drink. But they do help those people who do drink identify with a brand. That's why we advertise."
Others say that's hardly the full story.
"There's no question that the beer producers are competing among each other," said George A. Hacker, director of the Alcohol Policies Project for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "However, Advertising 101 tells us there are a number of purposes of advertising -- including attracting new users and encouraging current users to increase consumption."
Whether fueled by advertising on not, alcohol consumption is a serious problem on college campuses, according to the federally funded Task Force on College Drinking, which recently studied the consequences of student drinking. According to the report:
* 1,400 college students die every year in alcohol related accidents.
* Alcohol plays a role in 70,000 cases of sexual assault or date rape each year.
* Alcohol contributes to 500,000 injuries among college students each year.
While it's no surprise that college students drink a lot, a recent study of their drinking patterns by the Harvard School of Public Health found that more sports fans binge drink and have alcohol-related problems than non-sports fans.
Binge drinking is having four or five drinks at a sitting. Based on survey of more than 14,000 college students, among students who drink, 53 percent of sports fans usually binged while drinking, compared with 41 percent of male and 37 percent of female non-fans.
Sports fans are more likely to consider drinking "to get drunk" an important reason for drinking, the study found.
All of this -- combined with the fact that most college students are under 21 -- leads Hodding Carter III to conclude it's a no-brainer that colleges and the NCAA should cut their ties to beer marketing.
"Of course they should!" said Carter, president and CEO of the Miami-based Knight Foundation, which has long funded efforts to restore integrity to college sports. "The problem is when you rest your economic viability on the money that television gives you, TV will say, 'Where do you think we get our money from?' "
Hacker, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, is even harsher about the ethical line the NCAA is attempting to draw in accepting money from beer advertisers.
"I'd give them a 'D,' at best," Hacker said. "They're totally inconsistent. On one hand, they eliminate advertising of all other kinds of alcohol. Then they give beer companies a monopoly. So they're selling out their students to beer companies, and nobody else."
Hacker likens the NCAA restrictions on beer ads -- 60 seconds per hour -- to the old adage of being "just a little bit pregnant."
"They recognize that there is a problem," Hacker says. "But they're not addressing it adequately."
University of Miami President Donna E. Shalala says most university officials don't fully grasp the insidious effects of alcohol on college sports because they're cloistered in luxury suites during games. Shalala, by contrast, sits with fans in the stands at Hurricanes football games. And during the national championship game against Ohio State at the Fiesta Bowl, where beer was sold at Tempe's Sun Devil Stadium, she got drenched with suds.
As Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration, Shalala urged NCAA officials in 1998 to sever the tie between college sports and drinking "completely, absolutely and forever."
At Miami, she is in a thornier spot. Alcohol is neither sold nor advertised at sporting events on campus. But the Miami football team plays in a public stadium that sells beer. Shalala said she intends to revisit the matter when Miami's lease with the Orange Bowl is up for renewal. She also intends to raise the issue of whether beer should be sold at college bowl games with her fellow presidents in the conferences that administer the Bowl Championship Series.
"Most of us are like-minded about it," Shalala said, referring to a potential ban on beer sales. "We would realize it in terms of income. But I certainly think we should raise the issue. I promised myself I would after getting covered with beer."
This past football season, campuses from Clemson, S.C., to Pullman, Wash., saw melees erupt after football games. This past weekend, thousands of students gathered on the East Lansing, Mich., campus of Michigan State after the Spartans' South Region games in San Antonio on Friday and Sunday. On each occasion, public property was damaged and fires were lit. On Sunday, several campus stores halted their alcohol sales early at the request of police. Still, later that night, four cars were overturned, and the crowd was dispersed by police wearing riot gear and using tear gas. Maryland's students also rioted on their College Park campus after NCAA tournament games in the 2001 and 2002 tournaments.
The role of alcohol in fueling such mayhem was among the topics at a recent NCAA-sponsored summit on Sportsmanship and Fan Behavior.
Ohio State President Karen A. Holbrook opened the discussion by rolling videotape of undergraduates staggering around campus with six-packs in their hands at 8 a.m. last Nov. 23, the day the Buckeyes hosted arch rival Michigan in football.
With a chance to contend for the national title on the line, the revelry started at bars around campus the Thursday night before the Saturday game. For many, game day dawned with a so-called "Kegs and Eggs" breakfast. Jubilant fans rushed the field following the 14-9 victory. But the celebrations turned to riots as the night wore on. After the bars closed, more than 100 fires were set, cars were overturned and storefront windows were smashed.
Not all the participants were college students, nor was all the poor behavior alcohol-induced, Holbrook made clear. But drunken youngsters and open containers played prominent roles in the footage that was shown.
Said Shalala: "I don't think the problem is the beer companies. The problem is us. We've got to decide what's appropriate for our college campuses."