Network could collar B. Gumbel after Tagliabue unleashes rage

ON MEDIA

Commentary

The Kickoff

August 22, 2006|By RAY FRAGER

Bryant Gumbel was talking about Gene Upshaw's leash, but the real question now is whether someone will try to put a leash on Gumbel.

The longtime broadcaster irked outgoing NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue with his commentary at the end of the recent edition of HBO's Real Sports (which is, by the way, an excellent program that ranks as one of the few on television practicing sports journalism). Gumbel was addressing Tagliabue's replacement, Roger Goodell. According to a transcript from HBO, here is the offending passage:

"First of all, before he cleans out his office, have Paul Tagliabue show you where he keeps Gene Upshaw's leash. By making the docile head of the players union his personal pet, your predecessor kept the peace without giving players the kind of guarantees other pros take for granted. Try to make sure no one competent ever replaces Upshaw on your watch."

Earlier this year, Gumbel had been a surprise choice to work play-by-play on the NFL Network's eight game telecasts in the second half of the season. Tagliabue's reaction yesterday to Gumbel's commentary calls that assignment into question.

"I think things that Bryant Gumbel said about Gene Upshaw and the owners are about as uninformed as anything I've read or heard in a long, long time, and quite inexcusable because they are subjects about which you can and should be better informed," Tagliabue told the Associated Press.

So, does Gumbel still have a job with the league-owned network?

"Having looked at how other people have had buyer's remorse when they took positions, I guess they suggest to me that maybe he's having buyer's remorse and they call into question his desire to do the job and to do it in a way that we in the NFL would expect it to be done," Tagliabue said.

The soon-to-be former commissioner said the soon-to-be new commissioner would discuss Gumbel with NFL Network chief Steve Bornstein after Goodell takes over next month, the AP reported.

Through an HBO spokesman, Gumbel declined to comment. An NFL Network spokesman said: "The commissioner's comments speak for themselves" and would comment no further.

So maybe I'm naive to believe the NFL would allow its network a large-enough degree of editorial freedom to accommodate as independent a voice as Gumbel's. But if he ends up getting canned because of his comments, how can we pretend the network is anything but a public relations arm of the league?

Maybe the NFL doesn't care. The public adores its product. The NFL Network has quickly become a major presence on cable and satellite TV. (Full disclosure: I do not yet have access to the NFL Network.)

For things such as highlights shows, who's in control may not be a big deal. But are you going to trust that you're getting anything but the NFL line on league issues? Imagine the chilling effect on the network's on-air personnel if Gumbel gets bounced before he calls his first game.

Perhaps Gumbel was completely off-base. But that's no reason - to continue with a metaphor from another sport - for the NFL to call him out before he even gets a turn at bat.

ray.frager@baltsun.com

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