Notice anything different about last weekend's NFL pregame shows? Anything missing? For the first time since the invention of the office pool there was no mention of point spreads. Gambling is segmenta non grata in the new TV contract the NFL forged with NBC, CBS, ABC, ESPN and TNT. Like a poor relation, gambling exists, but it isn't spoken about in polite company.
To be sure, there were generic references to gambling. CBS showed a weather map of cities where games were being played -- information a gambler would want to know. ESPN had Pete Axthelm pick against the spread on Sunday's "SportsCenter," the show immediately preceding ESPN's official pregame show. However, there was a trick to Ax's picks: He predicted final scores. To decode the picks, you had to already know the line -- ESPN didn't provide it. On "GameDay," the overrated Chris Berman smirked his way through bettor-oriented stats, such as which teams have a history of starting fast, or if preseason records correlate with regular season performances. But no one gave us the spread.
Well, I miss it.
For two reasons: 1) Without the spread as a reference point we have no firm sense of the scope of an upset; the magnitude of the Jets beating the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III was made tangible knowing the Jets were 18-point underdogs. 2) The TV gambling segments were great, silly fun.
Rigged games are the deadly fear of legitimate sports. Moreover, the NFL is apprehensive about any expansion of state-sponsored sports lotteries. The NFL's position is that should these lotteries become pervasive, the integrity of the relationship between fan and game will be threatened -- the public will focus more on beating the spread than beating the opponent. Not an unreasonable stance.
But it seems rather disingenuous from a league that established preeminence among televised sports by making sure every schoolkid and football widow in the land knew the correct use of the phrase "take the points." When you look at the history of the NFL, not only were some of its more august founding families bookmakers (the Maras) and horseplayers (the Rooneys), but much of football's popularity was achieved by winking at gambling.
Who knows if it was truth or orchestration, but a mythology of gambling was created around the NFL. Princely sums were said to be wagered on the games, and the buzz made the NFL chic. Because it was a weekly event, even people who knew little about football had time between games to learn enough to participate in a pool. As the televised game became the talk of the office on Monday, the pool became the talk of the office on Thursday and Friday.
After the invention of the Super Bowl, the NFL became a totem in the pop culture. TV had established the league, and gambling accessorized it. Jimmy the Greek's weekly TV appearance was a marriage made in PR heaven. Pete Rozelle was a genius at marketing the NFL. He was no less concerned with gambling than Paul Tagliabue, but he never pulled the Greek (or late arrivals Paul Maguire and Axthelm) off the air. Rozelle was chummy with the network boys. He understood that the vaguely illicit attraction of gambling was part of the fuel the NFL ran on. Rozelle must be spinning in his tanning chamber at this.
The NFL can make this deal because it has the power to withhold its product from any network it chooses. Is it coercion? No, it's business. Network news divisions say they'd never agree to such restrictions, but the government isn't selling the rights to the Persian Gulf crisis. Not yet, anyway.
The larger issue here is censorship. Technically, this isn't a violation of the First Amendment, as there are no government agencies involved. But if it isn't a violation of law, it's clearly censorship. The NFL is dictating program content. It's deciding what can and can't be said over the air. When the clause surfaced, Axthelm said, only half jokingly, "I never thought I'd have anything in common with 2 Live Crew."
Clearly, the networks are now fully in bed with the NFL, toadying up to the league like it's essential to national security. So one day you have Dan Rather acknowledging he can't disclose where he's broadcasting from in Saudi Arabia, and the next Bob Costas is saying he can't disclose the spread on the Dolphins-Bills. What's wrong with this picture?
This clause is a bad sign for the full truth, which is an endangered species on TV sports to begin with. You can say what Jimmy the Greek did wasn't journalism, and I won't disagree. But this isn't only about point spreads, it's about spin control, it's about exercising power. Why would the NFL stop here? Why not purge the airwaves of criticism? Why wouldn't the NFL demand approval rights on all announcers, and get rid of the cynics? Why wouldn't it insist on prior approval for all stories about drug testing or contract disputes or business practices of owners? After all, nobody wants to hear bad news. C'mon, lighten up. Doesn't the NFL have our best interests at heart?
Heaven knows, Jimmy the Greek is no Edward R. Murrow, but every restriction against free speech -- no matter how trivial -- is a head slap at freedom.