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With Super Bowl telecast, CBS sidesteps NFL's labor and concussion issues

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Sunday, February 7, 2010; 11:44 PM

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla -- Questions about looming labor discord, a possible uncapped salary season in 2010 and the alarming long-term effects of football concussions dominated Commissioner Roger Goodell's annual state-of-the-NFL news conference two days before the Super Bowl. Sadly, not a discouraging word on any of those critical subjects found its way into the four-hour CBS pregame show or the four-hour game telecast on Sunday night.

Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports, had been asked specifically earlier in the week why the concussion issue would not be included in one of countless pregame features (some stunning, some silly, some soooooo sappy). He said quite matter-of-factly that the network had already spent considerable time discussing that issue during NFL telecasts during the season. Anyway, he added, "60 Minutes" also had done a recent segment on the subject and that "while it's obviously a very important topic, I'm not sure there's anything new to report. We certainly haven't avoided it."

And so, like your faithful correspondent, if you began your day of saturation CBS Super Bowl coverage at 10:30 a.m. by watching "Face The Nation" live from Sun Life Stadium, that show hosted by Bob Schieffer provided the only information you'd get about three of the most important issues facing the NFL in the coming months.

Goodell was Schieffer's guest for the first half of the 30-minute show, and the veteran Washington newsman asked all the right questions, even if the commissioner repeated almost word for word everything he'd said at his news conference two days before. Still, give "Face The Nation" an A for effort, though it would have been a good idea to also include DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, in the discussion, either from the stadium or wherever he might have been.

Schieffer also kept the concussion discussion going after the Goodell segment, asking CBS Sports broadcasters Jim Nantz, Phil Simms and Shannon Sharpe, "Can you have football if it's not rough?"

Much to his credit, Nantz admitted that media coverage of the game itself, particularly the on-air celebration of big hits during games and on highlight shows, contributed to some of those safety issues, not to mention that "players are faster and stronger and collisions create more damage."

"We have celebrated and over-celebrated the big collisions," Nantz said. "We've had them sponsored on the highlights, the hit of the week and other variations that really promote players to go out there and viciously lay someone out."

Once "Face The Nation" signed off, CBS was finally able to mostly emphasize the positive, though other newsworthy, real life-and-death issues did find their way into the build-up to the big game. They included an impassioned appeal for Haitian relief funds from former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and CBS also added several compelling features in between musical interludes; the obligatory celebrity chef concocting bizarre nibbles on a Ritz cracker (a pregame show sponsor); and more than enough football to satisfy the X's and O's crowd, as well.

James Brown's visit to the poverty-stricken Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, devastated by Hurricane Katrina and still a major disaster,reminded viewers that four years later, so much more has to be done.

The Saints' success bringing some temporary solace to flooded-out residents was a major theme in the piece, but more striking was the abject misery still a major part of everyday life in the Big-Not-So-Easy.

Former Pittsburgh head coach Bill Cowher, now a studio analyst on the pregame show, also went to a New York state prison for an emotional reunion with one of his former players. He did a jailhouse interview with former Steelers and New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress, now incarcerated for carrying a loaded gun into a Manhattan night club during the 2008 season.

Burress justified his decision to pack heat because his house had been broken into twice, which "takes some piece of mind away┬┐it scares you a little bit." But Cowher, a coach, not a journalist, didn't follow up with the obvious question as to why he felt it necessary to carry a loaded gun into a crowded nightclub. Still, at least Burress showed a modicum of contrition when he said "you go into a lapse of judgment┬┐thinking about yourself. My decision was a selfish decision."

He also said he had written a note of apology for his behavior to the owners of the Giants and indicated that, at age 32, he still has every intention of trying to play again when he is a free man. Asked by Cowher the lesson he had learned from all of this, he said, "don't take anything for granted."

When cameras returned to the studio analysts in a set overlooking the playing field, Boomer Esiason seemed not to have much sympathy for Burress, saying the segment ought to be made into a public service announcement to emphasize to players and civilians alike "not to have an unlicensed handgun in New York City."

As depressing as that feature may have been, the biggest rally-killer of the pregame build-up was a 13-minute segment from the White House library shown just before the Burress story was aired. For days, CBS had been promoting a live interview with President Obama conducted by news anchor Katie Couric that would air during the pregame show.

To be perfectly blunt, the interview seemed totally out of place on one of the few days of the year when Americans aren't bombarded with shrill partisan politics, terrorist threats and the tragic deaths of U.S. soldiers in far-off lands. But Couric earnestly began with a question on health care, moved onto unemployment, foreclosures, eliminating lobbyists, the deficit and reading Miranda rights to suspected terrorists.

The millions of remotes across the land clicking away to football shows on ESPN and the NFL Network surely drained the juice from countless batteries across the land, at least until Couric mercifully concluded the interview by finally asking the president who he liked to win the game. As expected, he gave the perfectly politically correct answer, saying that while the Colts had to be favored because of Peyton Manning's presence on their side, he also had a soft spot in his heart for New Orleans for all the obvious reasons. In the end, he said, he was mandating a close game.

Fortunately for CBS, that's precisely how it turned out. The Saints went down by 10-0 at the start, got back into it at halftime and it was a one-point contest going into the fourth quarter, the perfect storm for what ought to be a ratings bonanza for the network.

Nantz and Simms had both said before the game no matter how much hype and hoopla is associated with the Super Bowl, in the end they try to call a football game the way they did all season. That would mean lots of numbers and informative anecdotal background on most of the players from Nantz, penetrating analysis from Simms and an easy listen without many histrionics.

Simms, very much to his credit, also was perfectly willing to admit that on a critical Saints two-point conversion in the fourth quarter, he had prematurely called it an incomplete pass before the network went to commercial. During the break, the Saints challenged the ruling and a replay review indicated the receiver, Lance Moore, had possession when the ball crossed the plane of the goal line for a seven-point lead.

Later in the quarter, at a critical point with the Colts driving toward a possible tying touchdown, Simms said if he was calling the defensive signals for New Orleans, he'd abandon the blitz and put extra men into pass coverage downfield. The Saints' brain trust, as in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, clearly wasn't listening.

On the very next play, the Saints ignored Simms's advice and blitzed, and Manning's off-target pass was picked off by New Orleans defensive back Tracy Porter and returned 74 yards for the final Colts-crushing score.

Simms said after the play: "I was telling the Saints not to blitz. But when you're in a crucial point of the game, you do what you do best."

Good for him.

It also was a good day for Cowher, who seemed amped to the max any time he had a microphone in his hand during the pregame, particularly at the start of the four-hour show. He delivered a passionate appeal for the NFL to change its overtime rules so that both teams have a chance with the ball in any extra session and was clearly in need of a decaf drink or four throughout the day.

Of course, he also was the only studio analyst to pick the Saints to win the game, and his predicted score of the Saints winning 27-24 was almost on the mark. So too was CBS's coverage of another compelling Super Bowl game, including countless telling replays on virtually every critical play.

It's just too bad that over eight hours of mostly live television, some of the professional game's most important issues were never even discussed. They should have at least been mentioned somehow, some way.

And all that pregame hubbub about the ad featuring Tim Tebow and his mom that was so vehemently opposed by several abortion-rights groups seemed like much ado about nothing. The A-word was never mentioned, and the ad looked more like a harmless Oil of Olay advertisement than any strident pitch over a controversial subject, arguably among the blandest and most benign soft sells of the day.

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.

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