Tagliabue's rant: Was it skewed or shrewd?

Published August 25, 2006

When Bryant Gumbel was hired in April by the NFL Network to do play-by-play for the eight live games it will air this season, he made it clear the league-owned entity would be placing "no restrictions" on what he could say.

But after outgoing commissioner Paul Tagliabue slammed Gumbel for recent remarks on his HBO show, Gumbel has to be wondering whether teaming with the NFL was a wise choice. Fans, meanwhile, should be wondering exactly what kind of sanitized, ultra-controlled coverage they should expect from the league-owned network as it gains a greater foothold in the cable universe.

All this may seem irrelevant to the more than 1-million viewers in the Tampa Bay area who are Bright House subscribers and do not get the NFL Network. But if the network has been somewhat heavy-handed in its $100-million ad campaign to get area residents and others nationwide to complain to their cable companies, Tagliabue's criticism of Gumbel on Monday demonstrated clearly that the league expects to get its way.

On last week's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, Gumbel closed the show with some harsh commentary about Tagliabue's relationship with NFL Players' Association executive director Gene Upshaw. Gumbel even called the union leader Tagliabue's "personal pet," and said incoming commissioner Roger Goodell should have Tagliabue "show you where he keeps Gene Upshaw's leash."

Bold? Yes. Unfair? Probably. And Tagliabue certainly had reason to answer the criticisms publicly. But Tagliabue characterized Gumbel's words as not just "uninformed," but "inexcusable." And rather than leaving it at that, he intimated that once Goodell takes office next week, there is a chance he and network president Steve Bornstein might decide Gumbel should be replaced as its play-by-play voice.

Such an outrageous move would be tantamount to telling the public that the network is interested only in providing content the NFL wants viewers to see. It's bad enough that many network announcers are already reluctant to delve too deeply on the air into controversial issues (see: Masters, CBS). The last thing viewers deserve is more sanitization.

And firing Gumbel would be hypocritical, since it seems obvious the league has aimed to use his name - as well as that of Cris Collinsworth, who will serve with Gumbel as analyst - to create a buzz so loud around its new programming it would ultimately force the reluctant cable companies to pay the NFL's price to carry the network as part of their regular packages.

Did the league overlook the fact Gumbel made a "name" for himself not just with his accomplishments as a journalist, but with strong opinions that have been known at times - for years now! - to create controversy?

It begs the question: Was Tagliabue truly so angered by Gumbel's remarks that he felt it warranted the diatribe during a scheduled meeting Monday with reporters? Or was this just another calculated move to create more buzz and name recognition for the league's network? One has to wonder.

Network officials have said this week they still consider Gumbel its play-by-play voice. Gumbel has not publicly addressed Tagliabue's remarks. Chances are, he will keep his job, and all parties will move on.

But those who do get to watch the NFL Network's game coverage in the fall should not forget that they are unlikely to be seeing anything the league doesn't want them to see. And those who are finally getting to see the network for the first time should think twice about celebrating too loudly.