NFL censorship taking the kick out of football

MIKE LITTWIN

September 21, 1990|By MIKE LITTWIN

Let's see if I have this straight. Say I happened to be an NFL coach and some reporter happened to ask me about Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson and I happened to say, "Even if he weren't a total jerk, he'd still have bad hair," then the commissioner of football would be forced to punish me? Is that about it?

Well, it must be, because just this week commissioner Paul "What First Amendment?" Tagliabue issued a formal warning to Atlanta coach Jerry Glanville for calling Houston coach Jack Pardee a "jerk" and said that if he continued this behavior, there would be further consequences. These consequences could include a fine, a loss of a draft pick or listening to a Joe Gibbs lecture on blocking schemes.

This action was a signal to all NFL coaches, and its intent was obvious: to prevent coaches from criticizing each other and, as a bonus, to keep the league as boring as possible.

Maybe I'm all wrong, but I thought the idea was for sports to be fun. I think it's fun -- also true -- when Buddy Ryan calls Mike Ditka a fat head and Ditka calls Ryan a fat butt. These are two guys who plain don't like each other, and who doesn't want to tune in to see how it all turns out? I know they're the folks I want to be around when I've got a tape recorder running. Tagliabue has other ideas. I wouldn't be surprised if he passed around a script to coaches for use in all interviews: "Coach X is a mighty fine football coach, and he's got a mighty fine football team and it should be a mighty fine football game. Hope to see ya'll there."

What's the deal here? You'd think there were a bunch of coaches spouting off like Pat Buchanan with a clipboard. Folks, once you get past Ryan, Ditka, Glanville, Sam Wyche and Johnson, you've got a group of people who wouldn't say anything inflammatory for public consumption even if they were playing the Iraqi national team next week.

Nevertheless, the commissioner is on the case. Tagliabue, whom you're never likely to see dressed in a chicken suit, is a typical establishment-driven Washington lawyer, neither wild nor crazy. His idea of fun is to take the fun out of it for everyone else. Certainly, he's not the kind of person you'd immediately think of to head an entertainment industry unless you figure Cotton Mather would have made an interesting CEO at Warner Brothers.

Among his first acts as commissioner was to pressure ESPN into taking Pete Axthelm's betting tips off the pre-game show. Judge Souter, help me on this. Where in the Bill of Rights does it say that the NFL should decide what goes on TV? Does Tagliabue think that people won't gamble now? Doesn't he understand that if people didn't bet on NFL games, a lot more people would be spending their Sunday afternoons watching old movies? Doesn't he think that he might be taking football a little too seriously?

They already took away the end-zone celebrations. Too much dancing, not enough football. The hard part, of course, is to determine how much dancing is too much. If the celebration is spontaneous and short-lived, it's supposed to be all right. If it's a planned routine, send it to MTV, but not before an official throws a flag. I don't know how you decide. I guess it's like the definition of pornography: You know it when you see it.

OK, no dancing. No gambling. No inflammatory quotes, meaning if you can't say something nice about a colleague, talk about the 46 defense instead.

But tell me this: What, if you were asked, could you possibly say nice about Jerry Glanville?

Glanville has mixed it up, verbally anyway, with Pardee, Wyche, Chuck Noll and some others who think he's a loudmouthed self-promoter whose teams play dirty. Now, there's a legitimate concern for Tagliabue. Do Glanville's teams play dirty? It seems to me he has written the late hit and the cheap shot into every page of his playbook. Is he trying to out-Raider the Raiders? And, if he is, shouldn't the league take some steps?

The NFL doesn't need to worry about what Glanville says, any more than it should care for whom he leaves tickets. It's time for everyone to lighten up a little bit.

Why shouldn't Buddy Ryan and Mike Ditka have at it? Jimmy Johnson and Buddy Ryan are also don't-invite-'ems, and, sure, if it were my living room, I wouldn't invite either one, but I know I'll watch them on TV. There is an old saying, one that Pete Rozelle understood, and it says it doesn't matter what they write about you as long as they spell your name right. Publicity keeps the wheels moving. A little fun controversy, and you've got the wheels spinning.

Besides, there seems to be a principle at work here. Wasn't it a great American -- maybe Johnny Unitas -- who said that though I may not agree with what you say, I'll defend with my life your right to say it? That should probably even include Jerry Glanville.

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