Gumbel Has the Right To Say What He Feels

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, August 24, 2006

I was a kid, probably in seventh or eighth grade, when I became aware that Greg and Bryant Gumbel had spent their formative years as I had, growing up on the South Side of Chicago. They'd gone to Catholic high school, just as I was about to do. They spoke authoritatively, thought independently, and were clearly news/sports junkies because they knew their stuff, even at a very early age. As I went through high school, it became clear I wasn't going to be a professional ballplayer. Increasingly, I wanted to be like Greg and Bryant Gumbel.

So this column includes a certain bias as well as a certain annoyance that Bryant Gumbel's recent harsh remarks about NFL union chief Gene Upshaw might make him unworthy of calling games on the NFL Network, as outgoing commissioner Paul Tagliabue hinted at this week. The skeptical question about the NFL Network from its inception, at least in journalism circles, was whether it would operate with an independent voice or simply be a public relations tool for the league. Tagliabue's comments certainly suggest that the NFL might consider extreme measures to quash criticism -- even if it means blatantly dumping somebody for not toeing the party line.

This all started with Bryant Gumbel's recent criticism of Upshaw and his comment on his HBO show that the leader of the players' union has been led around all these years like a pet by Tagliabue, which is why the owners came out on the long end of most labor deals. Gumbel's not by himself in this criticism. It has been voiced by a number of current and former players over the years, people who believe that NFL players should have guaranteed contracts, like their peers in the NBA and Major League Baseball. They believe Upshaw's working relationship with Tagliabue was far too chummy and came mostly at the expense of the union.

It's a position I reject for the simple reason that pro football, regardless of who leads the union, has never had and will never have the leverage that pro basketball players and baseball players have in collective bargaining negotiations. The NBA sells stars, plain and simple, and stars are paid lavishly. MLB does so to a lesser extent, but the baseball player as an iconic figure has been an American cultural phenomenon for more than a century.

Pro football, on the other hand, sells the jersey and hardly anything else. Right now, if Santana Moss walked down Connecticut Avenue in a pair of khakis and a polo shirt, 95 percent of Washingtonians would have no idea who he is. His face is obscured by a helmet, his body by pads. Partly it's a numbers game; basketball has 12 players on a team; football has 53.

Other than four or five players per team, pro football players are unidentifiable out of uniform. In 1987, owners realized that the players as individuals don't much matter to the football consumer and staged replacement games that brought some of the biggest stars, such as Lawrence Taylor, across the union picket lines.

Upshaw didn't cross that line. Players did -- union members. And they did it because many realized it doesn't matter to patrons who is inside the jersey. They'll go to the games regardless. People packed RFK Stadium for that last replacement game and the owners won that labor fight in a beat-down. Nobody's going to see a Wizards team of replacements. But if there were an NFL work stoppage tomorrow morning, the owners would put replacement players on the field to open the season and most stadiums would be packed. The owners know it and Upshaw knows it. So he proceeds wisely, in a way that makes sense for his constituents.

And given his situation, I think he's done it quite well. Some owners are upset with Tagliabue because they believe Upshaw got the better of the league in this latest negotiation. And even if that's exaggerated, NFL players are never going to receive the huge guaranteed paydays their baseball and basketball counterparts receive, no matter that football is the most dangerous sport with the shortest career shelf-life.

While I disagree with Bryant Gumbel's characterization of Upshaw, I defend Gumbel's right to make the observation. If Gumbel were arguing the point with me, he'd make it persuasively, probably brilliantly, because that 's what he's done for a living for 30-plus years. He's one of the best things to come along in the modern history of sports journalism.

When the NFL Network announced that Gumbel and Cris Collinsworth were going to call games this season, it was a boon for the league. The fledgling network needs Gumbel a lot more than he needs it. He's already got the best sports show on television in "Real Sports" and it's just another component of one of the great careers in the history of television journalism. How many people calling NFL games have interviewed Kremlin officials live in Moscow? How many play-by-play guys have interviewed Fidel Castro in Cuba and come to your living room live from Saigon?

Toward the end of Gumbel's run at NBC's "Today" in the mid-1990s it became popular to take shots at him for being arrogant and dismissive. And Willard Scott was on the wrong end of a very critical internal memo at one point. But whether he was editing and contributing to "Black Sports" magazine in the early 1970s or doing sports at KNBC-TV in Los Angeles or anchoring pregame shows on NBC Sports, the four-time Emmy winner has been credible. He has been almost everything we praised Howard Cosell for being and then some, which is to say literate, tough, insightful, outspoken and critical. When he reports from anywhere, I'm listening.

Bryant Gumbel is not going to be anybody's Bobo, not even the NFL's.

And Tagliabue, a brilliant man himself, had to know exactly what the league was getting when the network approached Gumbel. There's a 30-year body of work out there to view. Did Tags and the NFL not see him take a shot at the lily whiteness of the Winter Olympics and the GOP convention? Did Tagliabue think the league was getting some shrinking violet?

Perhaps the league figures that if it could successfully pressure ESPN to take "Playmakers" off the air, it could also bully Bryant Gumbel into softening his positions and playing nice.

Surely, Tagliabue knows that any attempt to squeeze Gumbel in some little box as if he were a player wearing the wrong color socks on Sunday not only won't fly but will look like the silliest Nixonian attempt at censorship.

The NFL Network surely can broadcast its games without Gumbel, if it were to come to that. And Gumbel, whether we agree with a specific point or not, will march right ahead with the same independence that has served him so well all these years.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company