Unsportsmanlike Conduct

While the XFL aims for the slick fringes of entertainment, its antics fall in the muddy middle of the field

Assuming that the XFL stumbles to the end of its inaugural season (could NBC pull the plug early? it would be nice to think so), what can we learn from its parabolic course? There are the obvious facts: that even 14-year-olds sniff out inept pandering, or that few viewers hunger to watch no-names lunging for passes bouncing past their feet. In a broader sense, maybe you can go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

That's the consensus so far, accompanied by widespread celebration at the failure of Vince McMahon to cheapen yet another great American institution. Has he no shame? SportsCenter placed the league's opener sixth in its story queue, and far lower in succeeding weeks, while Sports Illustrated ran a cover story disdaining "Cheap Thrills."

But don't get too sanctimonious about all this. While they may not match the XFL's carnival barkers spiel for spiel, NFL announcers do hawk their game--it's just that fat TV contracts and endorsement deals allow them to soft-sell it. On a radio broadcast in 1935, would "respectable" football announcers have been any less eager to please? For all the handwringing about the ass and silicone shots the XFL grinningly inflicts on the world ("I thought there was the right complement of sexuality," Vince opined), what might we say in defense of the Cowboys' cheerleaders, a standard-bearer in cleavage and short shorts for 25 years? Finally, while the XFL wets its lips in anticipation of Hunnish levels of mayhem (beheadings, disembowelings--and could we stop hearing that there's no fair-catch rule on every single punt?), the NFL of the Seventies thrived with predators like Jack Tatum and George Atkinson roaming the secondaries, dispensing concussions and broken spines as if they were dealing cards.

I had hoped that the XFL would resuscitate some of the ramshackle glory of the Seventies' American Basketball Association, whose sky-high Afros and untrammeled playground aesthetic make it the blackest major sport ever. There are inroads for the XFL to make here, especially given the NFL's ban on "excessive celebration," an edict clearly directed against the pageantry of black players. So far, aside from mostly corny nicknames, we've seen little of expressive interest. Then again, maybe we have: The large number of XFLers who thank Jesus first may be the most authentic expression of today's African-American athlete.

In the same way, all the WWF's cultivated pomp and performance has yielded to the banality of the real on the XFL field. Seemingly trivial changes intended to produce more action, such as shortening the play clock by five seconds, have instead produced endless repeats of what every tailgater slavers over: the delay-of-game penalty. Getting up-close-and-personal in huddles and at the bench, as the league promises to do, affords ten times as many opportunities to hear the same clichés. And so we glory in stock coaching formulations like "move the ball and give our defense a rest," or the sideline-interview question, "Player X, you just [add what happened]. So what happened?"

Then there are the crowds of putative adults blurting the TRL-speak you hear from teens every afternoon (Sample remark: "OutlawsruleXFLruleswhooyeahh!!"). Add to that dialogue the patter of players stealing their best lines either from movies ("You complete me," one told his wife) or rap videos ("Whassup to all my peoples back in Columbus," yelled a gawky white farmboy), and you're left with a composite message that adds up to something disturbing. I can confidently assert that this is the last thing on his mind, but Vince McMahon and his XFL have done nothing less than rub our faces in the emptiness and unkept promises that are shared by all the gaseous emissions of the media-entertainment complex. Is it any wonder we can't bear to watch?

Consider how eagerly the league celebrates the serflike desperation its players exude. Announcers boasted repeatedly during the first two weeks that the athletes' paychecks--plus a bountiful $2,500 bonus per player for the winning team--represented the first actual cash they had seen since training camp in November. Nor will salaries increase after years of service, assuming the unlikely possibility that the league endures that long. Why anyone should brag about this, I don't know--although the announcers' repeated urgings that "they're playing for the love of the game" suggest that it's supposed to tap into the fans' presumed resentment of "overpaid" athletes. (Can we assume that the announcers are also doing commentary for love of the game?) To me, this rhetoric has the cruel exigency of Amazon.com's "coincidental" layoff of the entire department that spearheaded unionization efforts last year.

Alongside flesh and deep bone bruises, the XFL bares the sweatshop underpinnings of modern entertainment. Former New York Giant Keith Elias, a Princeton grad now toiling as a second-string running back for the sad-sack New York/New Jersey Hitmen, cut to the chase despite the sideline reporter's attempt to put a happy face on his brief resurgence: "I'm an old man. In professional football, at 29, you're pushing the envelope."

More to the point, consider the commentary. Second-string color man Jerry "the King" Lawler, to this point best known for having pile-driven Andy Kaufman during their "feud," doesn't even pretend to announce. His sole theme is "I'm here for the cheerleaders." Actual sports guy Matt Vasgersian, already demoted from the top play-by-play slot for possessing some remnant of principle (he has been supplanted by WWF "talent" Jim Ross), did his best to simulate excitement over bouncing cheerleaders and the tepid spectacle of some promo goof with an air cannon blasting T-shirts into the stands. While Vasgersian, commendably, manages to refer to Lawler and Ross as "colleagues" without choking, he can still take cues from backup Kevin Malone, who does a perfect imitation of Ted Baxter covering sports. On his second telecast, Malone showed off his chops by cheerily assuring us that the horde of unknowns (aside from former Cowboy Alvin Harper) attempting to catch passes for the Memphis Maniax "are all good," which cleared things right up.

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