Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, unhappy with the appearance of Joe Theismann just before him, walked off the set moments before he was scheduled to do a live interview with WRC-TV-4 sportscaster George Michael Thursday night, touching off an unusual videotape tempest among Michael, WUSA-TV-9's Glenn Brenner and ESPN.

Gibbs, standing by at training camp in Carlisle, Pa., to go on the air with Michael during the 6 p.m. newscast, listened as Michael interviewed Theismann about Theismann's upcoming autobiography. As he sat on the set, Gibbs started to question Channel 4 assistants about his spot:

"Hey, do I have to go on here? I didn't know he {Theismann} was going to be on here. I don't really want to be on here with him on the air. Do you know what I'm saying? Do I have to be on here? Tell him I don't want to be on here, whoever's in charge of this . . . Hey, tell him I'm off this thing. I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to do that. I didn't know he was having him on there."

Gibbs then removed his microphone and walked away.

"This is what happened," Gibbs said yesterday. "I think I'm going to do an interview at 6:30 to answer questions . . . I don't know that Joe Theismann is going to be on this show. I go in there and sit down for a regular interview, and when they hook me up, I start hearing an interview between George and Joe Theismann. I did not know that was going to be on the show and certainly didn't know it was coming on right before I came on. All of a sudden, I start hearing this, they're going back and forth on the book and issues like that, and quite honestly, as soon as I heard that, I said, 'I don't want to come on after this . . . ' "

What aggravated the incident even more was that ESPN and Channel 9 each ended up showing Gibbs' unexpected departure.

Michael had contacted ESPN and let the cable network know he would be interviewing Gibbs if it were interested in picking up footage. An ESPN associate producer, waiting to monitor the interview, saw Gibbs leave the set and rushed the tape to the managing editor of "SportsCenter," Mike Matters, who put it on the 7 p.m. show without screening it.

ESPN erred in showing Gibbs; it had permission to show portions of his interview with Michael, but it could not rebroadcast a transmission not intended for broadcast without Channel 4's approval. ESPN realized its mistake, and Matters apologized to Michael and the Redskins and offered to make an on-air apology. Meanwhile, Brenner saw the tape on ESPN and aired it on his 11 p.m. sportscast.

Kirk Varner, news director of "SportsCenter," said ESPN has a standard agreement with all the news stations in Washington that they can lift game-highlight material from ESPN without needing permission.

"But when the event involves sound of any kind," Varner said, ESPN expects to get a call to clear the material. Varner said Brenner did not call ESPN, and that if he had, ESPN would have denied permission to use the feed.

Michael was upset at Brenner's video one-upmanship. "I can't believe this happened. I can't believe Glenn would do that. That's immoral, unprofessional and illegal. It's the most unprofessional thing I've heard since I've been in town."

Jerry Nachman, WRC's general manager, said Brenner's maneuver "falls into the journalistic war-crimes category." Nachman called Ron Townsend, his counterpart at WUSA, to complain.

But Brenner held his ground.

"My understanding is we had an agreement with ESPN that once something hits the airwaves, it's fair game," he said. "How am I supposed to obey an unwritten agreement I'm unaware of? The purpose of running the tape was to show Joe Gibbs' disgust with Joe Theismann. My question is: if this thing ran nationally, what's the big deal about one local station then showing it? That's like when the Titanic is sinking and you decide to throw one more deck chair off the side.

"George {Michael} is trying to shift the blame. I know his rap. He tried to deceive Coach Gibbs {about Theismann's appearance} and got burned. I like it when George is upset with me. That means I'm doing my job . . . Hey, on the chain of command of bad guys here, I think we're last. We didn't deceive Joe Gibbs and we didn't steal any tape."