Leonard Shapiro, Sports Columnist
Sports Waves

Justice Prevails, If Just for an Instant, at ESPN

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By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, February 19, 2007; 11:22 PM

Maybe there is some justice in the world, after all.

Two weeks after me-first Michael Irvin was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame ahead of classy team-first Art Monk, despite Irvin's countless run-ins with the law during and after his showboating playing career had ended, ESPN actually did the right thing by not offering the former Cowboys receiver a new contract to appear on its various NFL segments.

No official reason was given by ESPN. But after Irvin's blatantly reverse-racist comments suggesting that Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo's athletic prowess had to due with the fact that some of his relatives must have slept with slaves "back in the day," someone in the worldwide leader's executive suite decided that enough was enough. They finally realized they could easily live without a guy who potentially could cause the network even bigger problems down the line, doing or saying who knows what on or off the air.

I was stunned at the time of Irvin's Romo comments that the network didn't immediately suspend him and at the very least send him away for sensitivity training. But in retrospect, this is a far better solution. I only wish my fellow Hall of Fame selectors had shown more wisdom in punching his ticket to Canton ahead of Monk, a man who never brought the slightest whiff of shame or scandal to his team, his town or his family at any time since he joined the Washington Redskins a quarter-century ago.

The sad part is I suspect Irvin won't be unemployed for very long. If I were a betting man, I'd venture that the NFL Network people already are preparing to make him an offer. Perhaps they could pair him with another despicable former player, Sterling Sharpe, who made a career of never speaking to the media when he played for the Green Bay Packers, then became a media hotshot himself, initially courtesy of ESPN before he also was let go. Good riddance to both.

Now, the early word is that ESPN may be interested in former Dallas Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells, another occasional media-basher himself in his recent coaching stints. ESPN reporters, or any reporters, for that matter, were never permitted to speak with Parcells' assistant coaches, but he'll likely be rewarded with a fat contract and a prime seat on the Sunday set.

Ironically, if a similar prohibition had been placed on Parcells when he was an unknown assistant back with the New England Patriots 30 years ago, this Tuna might still be in the can. Back then, Parcells was befriended by influential Boston Globe football writer Will McDonough, who more than occasionally wrote about him and often passed along his name to NFL executives as a promising up-and-comer. McDonough didn't get Parcells the Giants head coaching job, but several league executives have told me for years that his considerable influence certainly didn't hurt Parcells' cause.

ESPN may also want to go after Marty Schottenheimer, who filled a studio seat with the cable network after he'd been fired by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Schottenheimer's most memorable broadcasting moment may have been calling out Redskins owner Dan Snyder on the air, saying on television that he could never work for such a hands-on meddler.

Watching Schottenheimer squirm whenever he was asked about his initial assessment of Snyder became riveting theater after Snyder recruited and then signed him to coach the Redskins, clearly demonstrating that when a multi-million dollar contract was being dangled in his face, good old Marty could get along and work with anyone, don't you know. And of course, the meddler fired him anyway after a single season.

The best sports television hire so far this offseason was NBC finding a way to add Tiki Barber to its NFL and Today Show line-up. When the University of Virginia alumnus wants to point to an example of the sort of graduate Renaissance Man that school founder Thomas Jefferson would have been proud of, Barber ought to be at the very top of their list, with his cornerback twin brother Ronde listed as 1A.

Strangely, Tiki has been taking a lot of talk show heat over the last week since his press conference to announce he'd be joining the Peacock Network next year. During that session, Barber was asked about his relationship with hard-ass Giants' head coach Tom Coughlin, and gave what seemed to be an honest assessment. He praised Coughlin for helping him become a consistently productive Pro Bowl player, but also admitted that a softer approach might have helped the Giants move deeper into the postseason in 2007.

"I think he has to start listening to the players a little bit and come our way -- their way -- a little bit," Barber said. "I don't know if you realize this, but we were in full pads for 17 weeks, and with the amount of injuries we had, it just takes a toll on you. You physically don't want to be out there when your body feels the way you do in full pads.

"It probably doesn't have a detrimental affect on how you practice or how you play. It does on your mind. And if you lose your mind in this game -- their game -- you lose a lot. That's something he has to realize, and I think he does."

Just the other day, I heard former Miami Dolphins tight end Jim Mandich, a big-time talk show host in South Florida these days, question Barber's toughness over those remarks. He wondered out loud if Walter Payton would ever have said something like that about Mike Ditka, or whether his own teammate Larry Csonka might have yapped about his tough-guy coach, Don Shula, being too hard on the athletes.

I disagree. In an era when so many athletes spew so much political correctness in their interviews, it's a delight to hear Barber offer his true feelings and honest insight into what went into his decision to say goodbye to the game he still played at a Pro Bowl level, leaving two or three more productive years and perhaps even a Hall of Fame induction on the proverbial cutting room floor.

I've been in the tank for Tiki ever since I watched him play in college in Charlottesville. Over the last two years, I didn't even mind when my wife jabbed me in the ribs at 6 a.m. to watch Barber hone his broadcasting skills on the Fox News Network's otherwise pedestrian morning show. Every Tuesday -- the players' day off all around the NFL -- was "Tiki Tuesday" at Fox, and Barber showed up every week for two years as far as I can tell, even after gut-wrenching losses, injuries and overnight trips from west coast Monday night games.

He also had done his homework, asked probing questions of anyone he interviewed and showed a delicious sense of self-deprecating humor that surely will serve him well as he moves up the ranks at NBC -- perhaps as a future Today Show or Nightly News host a few years down the line.

My admiration grew even more when I read last week that Barber was willing to give up millions of dollars in endorsements to sign up with NBC.

The Today Show comes under the NBC News banner, and if you're going to try to emulate Matt Lauer, Tom Brokaw or Brian Williams, you just can't take the money as a paid pitchman doing beer and car commercials. Barber understood that, and was willing to give it all up.

"That was a big thing, but it's what you sacrifice," Barber told the N.Y. Times last week. "I came to love news."

It's a quote someone ought to reprint in 72-point type and send back over to the ESPN crowd -- Chris Berman, Dan Patrick, Stuart Scott and so many more so-called sports news guys who show up regularly on the worldwide leader's studio news shows but still shamelessly line their pockets doing commercials.

ESPN did the right thing in ditching Michael Irvin last week. Maybe they'll take another positive step and tell their sports NEWS broadcasters to focus on the journalism, and ditch the pitchman moonlighting.

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Badgerlen@hotmail.com or Badgerlen@aol.com.


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