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Time to get tough


The moment Janet Jackson lost her shirt in the Super Bowl halftime show, we should've known there would be more sexually-suggestive events in the NFL's television future.

Look at the controversy it sparked. Look at the attention it earned Jackson. Isn't that what advertisers want? They want the highest possible visibility for their product, and sales go to the network that can deliver that visibility, right?

Well, the second shoe hit the floor this past Monday night, in a made-for-TV event every bit as contrived in its content as was Jackson's torn shirt. In this case, ABC used the NFL and Monday Night Football to air a tasteless skit that would promote the network's new hit series, "Desperate Housewives."

ABC-TV is saying all of the right things today. They're apologizing, hoping to soften the FCC's opinion of the network's MNF opening, but talk about disingenuous? ABC regrets nothing. They got exactly what they wanted, mega-publicity for a TV show that is driving the network's ratings.

All of a sudden, ABC is acting as though it didn't know the Terrell Owens-Nicollette Sheridan drop-towel opening would cause the stir it did. ABC is acting as an innocent in all of this when, in fact, the network is reveling in its notoriety. They're sorry? Yeah, they're sorry they didn't do it earlier.

Hey, they had to do something, right? CBS had the Janet thing last winter and NBC forced "Touchdown Jesus" to cover his ears this past Saturday when an excited Pitt quarterback used the mother of all bad words in a postgame interview. What was ABC to do? Just roll over and play dead for the other networks? It needed some notoriety. It needed to do something bad enough that everyone would talk about it, and it did.

FCC fine? Are you kidding? You can't buy publicity like this. It's worth every penny of the check ABC will write the FCC.

What am I talking about? Come on, you know what I'm talking about. Everybody in the country knows what I'm talking about. Women who would rather have a stomach virus than watch a football game know what I'm talking about. ABC's Monday night opening has been the hot topic in every workplace in America this week. It pushed the Pitt kid aside as though he had uttered the word "poop."

It worked, didn't it?

Now, here's the real issue: What is the NFL's stance on this? Does the NFL truly resent having its product used in such a tawdry way? Does the NFL anguish about its association with what ABC did?

If the answer to those questions is "yes," then it begs the obvious: What is the league going to do about it?

The NFL is in a tough spot. It just took several billion dollars from the networks in a new TV deal, and it's difficult to get angry at someone who pays you billions of dollars; who holds your very existence in their hands. The networks have to believe that for the billions of dollars they pay, they ought to be able to do as they please.

Under Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's leadership, revenue streams in the NFL have grown to frightening levels. No sports league boss in history has been as successful in driving profits for his owners as Tagliabue has for his. Now, in what many believe are the final years of Tagliabue's rule of the NFL, he is faced with another kind of challenge. It's time to clean this game up.

From end-zone hijinks to pregame fights to risqué television productions, it's time Tagliabue says, "that's enough." The NFL is being abused by its partners; by its players and by the television networks who present the NFL to the public.

Tagliabue needs the full support of the league's owners to take whatever steps necessary to bring the game of professional football back to the pure athletic event it was always intended to be. It's time for Tagliabue to get tough.

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