Far be it for us to deter Bryant Gumbel in any way from speaking his mind whenever it suits him. Whether or not he's exactly your cup of meat, to steal from Bob Dylan, fact is that his body of work says he's entitled to enter his cranky old bastard era just like all the rest of us.
|When it comes to the NFL, Bryant Gumbel really can't have it both ways. (AP)|
Only Gumbel also had a job with the NFL Network, the station built on the single proposition that the NFL, rather than the planets and stars and all creatures therein, is God's single greatest achievement. Oh, and that freedom of speech is what other people do.
Which is fine, if you like your information that way. It's the propaganda arm of the league, and if you can't tell much of a difference between it and the other NFL-bearing networks, well, that's the other networks' fault.
But this isn't about the NFL Network, which has the right to be as stridently pro-us as it likes. This is about Gumbel thinking that the NFL would pay him and still allow him to say that Tagliabue has to pass the leash that holds Gene Upshaw by the thorax on to successor Roger Goodell.
Fact is, Bry old sock, when you're working at the company trough, you don't get to bite, and if you thought network TV was hard on the individual conscience, you ain't seen nothin' yet.
It seems so obvious, too. The NFL is paying you, which means it bought your silence. If you have points to make that don't jibe with the league's, it will stop paying you. It's like gravity -- you can be against it all you want, but when you jump off that building at rush hour, it will explain itself to you in the most forceful terms imaginable, without time for rebuttal.
The real lesson here is that Gumbel could not play his role as hard-bitten intrepid journalist and blah, blah, blah if he's taking money from the NFL. It's called conflict of interest there, Edward R., and it works for you just like it works for everyone else. If you listen closely to every other NFL analyst/big mouth/weisenheimer on the air, you hear company line from start to finish, because the league is just that way. You can't be independent and dependent at the same time.
But Gumbel figured otherwise, or he thought he was immune. He thought rules of willingly being co-opted didn't apply to him, and well, they do. If you want to measure the comparative social throw-weights of Bryant Gumbel and the NFL, think of the relationship between gum and shoes. Whatever Gumbel may have to say, and much of it does have merit, a lot more people are listening to the NFL.
None of this means that Gumbel's argument, such as it was, is without merit, necessarily. It is a matter of opinion, and there is some reason to think that Upshaw's relationship with the league has been detrimentally cozy over the years. There are still no guaranteed contracts in the sport with the shortest shelf life for its workers, and there are health and safety issues galore in a sport of high collisions.
Thus, if Gumbel wants a piece of Gene Upshaw and still has a pop or two left to take at Tags, then go with God there, Andy Rooney, with this caveat: The only place you can't do it is at the business end of an NFL check. Put another way, Walter Cronkite didn't work for the FBI, and if you have to ask why, you don't get it and you never will.
So let 'em have it, both barrels, head shots, chest shots, even groin shots if you must, Bryant old pal. Give them back their broadcasting job, because you neither need the money nor the cheap fame, and keep poking the cage. There aren't enough other people doing it.
Either that, or go back to the booth and keep your yap shut, knowing that like most people in your position, you sold out for the short money. Those are the choices you have, because the most basic truth of corporate sporting America remains this:
You either bite, or you are bought.
Ray Ratto is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.