Juwan Howard walked tall into a D.C. Superior

courtroom last Wednesday to plead not guilty to drunken driving. The plea didn’t jibe all that well with Howard’s many recent pronouncements that getting pulled over on Nov. 11 with a blood-alcohol level approximating his recent shooting percentage was “a mistake” and “an embarrassment to the Bullets organization.”

More than 17,000 people—just about enough to fill USAir Arena for a Bullets game—died in alcohol-related car crashes in the U.S. in 1995, so it would be nice if the rich reputed serial do-gooder stopped referring to his actions as mistakes and embarrassments. Trying to draw a charge on Shaquille O’Neal—now, that’s a mistake. Patronizing a cheesy meat market like Lulu’s after signing a contract that’ll bring him $110 million—now, that’s an embarrassment. But getting shitfaced and then speeding through downtown streets without regard to red lights—well, that’s a crime. Screw your good deeds and your money.

From the moment Howard buried the needle on the Breathalyzer, the Bullets and the power-drinking power forward have been carrying on as though no significant off-court foul was committed. Nobody from the team gave the slightest hint that fining or otherwise disciplining the highest-paid player in franchise history was even considered. It’s not as if he didn’t have any options; hell, Howard could’ve bought Lulu’s with just a fraction of his 1996 salary and slept off his big buzz inside the saloon. Many anti-drunken driving advocates are fearful that the worst hangover from the Howard episode will be that young Americans will have their coolest pro-alcohol spokesmodel since Spuds MacKenzie.

“Neither Juwan Howard nor his coach [Jim Lynam] seemed all that concerned about the arrest,” sighed Melva Morin of the Maryland chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “There was that apology [from Howard], but the way it was given you don’t get the feeling from either of them that this was a very serious matter. I think a lot of people are upset that it’s not being taken seriously enough.”

Even though the Bullets dropped the ball, the NBA might have stepped up and treated Howard’s drunken driving as a matter worthy of some type of intervention. Didn’t happen.

“We don’t have any policy on alcohol abuse,” a spokesman in the NBA’s New York headquarters told me. “So we don’t have any comment on the Juwan Howard situation. There’s no reason for us to have one.”

The spokesman’s words didn’t ring too true the day after Howard’s plea, when Bobby Hurley, the one-time can’t-miss prospect from Duke who’s now stuck to the dreadful Sacramento Kings’ bench, admitted during an interview that it’s unlikely he’ll ever recover the playing form he showed when he entered the league as a first-round draft choice. That, of course, was before a drunken driver poleaxed Hurley in a California intersection.

The NBA’s substance-abuse program, put in place in 1983, is clear only when it comes to cocaine and heroin: Get caught with either of those drugs even once, and you’re banned.

None of the other major professional sports leagues treats alcohol infractions with the kind of seriousness they demonstrate when it come to illicit drugs, either. The NFL has always had a boys-will-be-boys outlook on booze abuse: Redskin QBs Billy Kilmer and Sonny Jurgensen, rivals on the field but partners in crime off of it, used to take turns as designated drunken drivers on their nights on the town, knowing they’d suffer only whatever penalties were imposed by the local courts. Little has changed.

On the very same day Howard was in court pleading innocent to his DWI charge, the NFL was kicking Dallas Cowboy Leon Lett out of the league for a minimum of one year after cocaine was found in his urine. Earlier this year, teammate and fellow Pro Bowler Michael Irvin was forced to sit out five games after pleading guilty to coke possession. There was never any evidence presented that Lett or Irvin put anybody other than himself at risk. A day after Lett was let go, Cincinnati Bengals fullback Jeff Cothran was suspended—but just for one game—after plowing his Chevy Blazer into a guardrail while drunk. It was Cothran’s second arrest for a violent alcohol-related incident in the past year.

Amazingly, Cothran’s suspension, unlike the banishments doled out to Lett and Irvin, was not league-mandated but was handed down by Bengals officials. Under the NFL’s current “Policy and Program for Drugs of Abuse and Alcohol,” which went into effect in 1993 with the current collective bargaining agreement, a player will not be suspended for getting a DWI absent additional “felonious conduct or serious injury or death of third parties.” In other words, the league would have gotten involved only if somebody had been crushed between Cothran’s Blazer and the guardrail. Maybe next time, as they say in sports.

Why aren’t alcohol offenses treated as serious by the powers that be in pro sports? Traffic-fatality statistics show that the threat to the general public’s well-being posed by alcohol abuse doesn’t take a back seat to that of heroin or coke. Could it be money?

Sure seems that way. Distributors of cocaine and heroin—the only two drugs deemed at all destructive by pro leagues—don’t pump many advertising dollars into team owners’ coffers. Booze pushers do: According to the Beer Institute, a D.C.-based nonprofit for the brewing industry, beer companies alone spent more than $550 million on TV and radio advertising last year.

“And far and away the largest share of the advertising budget goes to sports-related marketing ventures,” says R.S. Weinberg, a former vice president of Anheuser-Busch who is now a St. Louis-based consultant to the brewing industry. “You can’t separate beer and sports in America.”

Weinberg, however, doesn’t think the Howard episode should be taken as evidence that the rulemakers in pro sports or beyond are under the influence of big-time beer vendors.

“Brewers that I know are always most fearful of more regulation,” Weinberg says. “So when a high-profile person gets caught abusing alcohol, the brewers are usually the ones yelling, ‘Punish the bastard!’ But I think that what we have with [Howard] is just the community as a whole wanting to look the other way, to say, ‘This person can be a great role model, so why should we tarnish that? He does many great other things, so why harm that?’”

A drifter named Keylth Carey was also in court on Wednesday. After a Prince George’s circuit judge gave him eight years in jail for two counts of vehicular homicide while intoxicated, Carey apologized for what he’d done. Just like Juwan.—Dave McKenna