TAMPA -- As the football teams and masses of media descended here Monday to begin the annual rite of hyperbole known as Super Bowl week, for once there is no great mystery about the overriding story of this silver anniversary game.
With a war in the Persian Gulf, it's really just a six-hour diversion (counting the pregame show, of course) from air raid sirens and gas masks, Patriots and Scuds, and Peter Jennings ready to break in at a moment's notice.
Under normal circumstances, this is a Super Bowl with more angles than a Florida time-share salesman. You've got the New-York-state-of-mind game; a pair of quarterbacks, Jim Kelly of the Bills and Jeff Hostetler of Giants, who couldn't play collegiately for Joe Paterno; a couple of aging stars in New York running back Ottis Anderson and Buffalo wide receiver James Lofton; and The Defense of the 1980s, Lawrence Taylor, against The Man of the 1990s, Bruce Smith.
And yet, it's not hard to figure the hot stories of the week. You'll be seeing numerous interviews of players and coaches with relatives in the armed services, lots of talk about the massive security measures already in motion here and much debate as to whether the game even should be played.
Everything else in Super Bowl history seems to pale in comparison, though there have been memorable stories over the years, from an alleged gambling scandal first reported by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC that initially involved Kansas City quarterback Len Dawson before Super Bowl IV (he later was absolved of any wrongdoing) to sportswriters turning into city reporters as riots broke out in Liberty City before Super Bowl XXIII in Miami two years ago.
Last year Washington television reporter Roberta Baskin of WJLA-TV-7 knocked the National Football League into a defensive crouch with her reports on the league's drug testing procedures, a story that dominated the news out of New Orleans for days. League officials attacked the messenger rather than the message of a drug testing program reportedly run amok, with Commissioner Paul Tagliabue spending a good portion of his state of the league news conference knocking a story he described as a "journalistic Molotov cocktail," a "smear," a "gross distortion."
The NFL also was incensed at the timing of Baskin's reports, aired at the start of its showcase week, and league spokesmen said so, describing WJLA as the No. 3 station in its market hoping to boost ratings with a story that had been reported months earlier in Sports Illustrated.
A year later Baskin says she is still somewhat stunned by the NFL's reaction, though that has not kept her from doing a two-part follow-up that will air Wednesday and Thursday. As it turned out, the NFL made significant changes in its drug program, including the firing of its director, Forest Tennant, a major focus of Baskin's piece; the appointment of a drug advisory board that includes several of Baskin's key sources on the story; and a more secure testing system designed to protect players' confidentiality.
Baskin makes no apology for the timing of her story last year. She began working on it independently of the station's sports department when Dexter Manley was suspended for drug use in November 1989, and was actually putting the finishing touches on her reports the day they were aired.
"I worked as hard as I could to get it done," she said last week. "It would have been crazy not to do it that week. My response to them talking about timing is this: It was timely. I was shocked at their reaction. I had never been personally attacked like that. That Molotov cocktail line was a headline-maker, a defensive-offensive maneuver." Baskin also says she went out of her way to allow the NFL to respond to her stories. She says she even offered to prepare a rough version of her interviews for Tagliabue weeks before the Super Bowl "so he wouldn't be sandbagged. . . . I was flabbergasted he didn't want to see it."
Baskin says she has made repeated efforts since then to get Tagliabue on camera and has been turned down. She also says several players, including Manley, have told her they have been ordered by the league not to go on camera with her. Manley was not available to comment; his attorney, Bob Woolf, said he was unaware of any effort by the NFL to muzzle Manley.
Joe Browne, the NFL's vice president of communications, said he "categorically denies" the league has told players not to speak with Baskin. And he also says the NFL has not cooperated with her because "WJLA's reporting has been irresponsible, beginning with last year's Super Bowl-related story right through more recent stories. . . . She reports unfounded rumors regarding secret deals between NFL players and this office on the issue of drug suspensions, which are denied by this office and the players and their agents. Irresponsibility is the key word here."
Other league sources say that Tennant was on thin ice long before Baskin's reports, and that Tagliabue knew he had to deal with the problem as soon as he could get all the facts.
"Paul's style is to make decisions and go on to the next project," Browne said. "WJLA seems to be on a one-issue crusade. Going back to January of 1970 with the Dawson story, certain news organizations believe the best way to get publicity for a story is to time it for Super Bowl week. That idea is 20 years old."
But this week, only one story counts, and clearly, it won't be about drugs, gambling or a football game.