The game is popular but losing its soul In the '90s, bland beats boisterous

September 01, 1991|By Vito Stellino

This is not your father's NFL.

When the National Football League opens its 72nd season today, it will have bulging wallets but seems in danger of losing some of the emotion that makes the game so popular.

"I'm not so sure we aren't heading for the day when this league of ours makes us all show up for the opening kickoff in gray, three-piece, pinstripe suits. The only way they'll tell the teams apart is by the color of the neckties," says Mike Ditka, the fiery coach of the Chicago Bears.

Ditka remembers the NFL before it became such a corporate game and so image-conscious.

He remembers the NFL back in the days before players were sent out of the game for not having their jerseys tucked in, the way Eric Williams of the Washington Redskins was during the preseason.

Ditka's coach, the late George Halas, one of the league's founding fathers, might have trouble understanding Paul Tagliabue's league, in which the Ickey (Woods) Shuffle has been banned and players must leave the field as soon as the game ends.

One league official said: "It's like the theater. As soon as the play is over, the performers leave the stage."

Theater? Tell that to Iron Mike Ditka.

"Football is snot, blood, tears, sweat, pain. If you want something else, go to a chess match. Football is not for the fragile, not for the faint of heart. It's men on men, and it's tough, and they've got to be careful about legislating emotion right the hell out of it. The thing is you've got a lot of people making rules who never put on a jockstrap," Ditka said.

The NFL found itself tagged the No Fun League after it outlined its new policies in March. There was so much backlash that the league had to modify the rules.

It now says, for example, that players will be allowed stay on the field for a prayer circle after the game.

Tagliabue, a former Washington lawyer who seems to enjoy reading legal briefs more than watching football games and is a symbol of the league's corporate image, said last week that there was a "misunderstanding" on the subject of the banning of celebrations and the league was mainly concerned about stopping taunting by the players.

"There was more misunderstanding on this subject than on most. The steps we took at our meeting in March merely reaffirmed policies that have been in effect in the NFL for at least a better part of a decade and in some cases longer than that. . . . In the preseason, we've had virtually no episodes that have raised any problems. We're still going to be looking for a hell of a lot of enthusiasm, and I think we'll get it from the players in terms of how they play the game, how hard they hit, the action in the game and on top of that, the enthusiasm that comes when they score or make a great play," he said.

Tagliabue ignored the fact that the Ickey Shuffle, which previously had been moved from the end zone to the sidelines, has been banished together along with all premeditated

celebrations.

Part of the controversy is simply part of a generation gap. The players are from the MTV generation and can't understand why the NFL doesn't want celebrations.

Part of it is that football has become more and more of a coach's game. Football doesn't have a Magic or a Michael or even a Joe Namath.

It's typical that bland Joe Montana, who never called his own plays, is the game's best player.

"We're uniforms," said Randall Cunningham, who may be the sport's exciting player, but hasn't won a playoff game, probably because he hasn't had the good fortune to play with the right coach or in the right system.

Cunningham said that when the league put replacement players in the uniforms during the 1987 strike games, the fans still watched and cheered.

A Mike Ditka may lament that the image makers want to drain the emotion out of the game, but there's no sign that the fans are concerned.

It's hard to argue with the results. Pro football is the nation's most popular sport in virtually every survey. It has set attendance records two years in a row.

It may not have the romance of baseball. Today isn't Opening Day. It's just the day the first regular-season games are played. There are no rites of spring. Yet when they tee it up today, the network TV ratings should top every other sport.

"Monday Night Football" is the fourth-longest-running prime show show in the history of television. It trails only "Walt Disney," "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "60 Minutes."

Baseball doesn't even have a game of the week anymore, and yet ABC-TV showed Monday night exhibition games in prime time.

Even Tagliabue has trouble explaining why the popularity of the game continues to mushroom despite the strikes, franchise moves and antitrust courtroom battles of the past decade.

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