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California and the West | ON CALIFORNIA

Me Like They

April 18, 2001|PETER H. KING

And so, California sports fans, this is as good as it gets, right? It's Los Angeles vs. San Francisco in a game for all the marbles. It's a test of municipal muscle, a revival of the state's most enduring rivalry--north vs. south, Silicon Valley vs. Hollywood, cable cars vs. Sunset Strip, and so much more.

Then again, no. For the big game in the L.A. Coliseum late Saturday afternoon will pit the Los Angeles Xtreme against the San Francisco Demons. To the uninitiated, these are professional football teams. They play in a new league called the XFL, which has not exactly taken the sports world by storm.

After a well-watched debut in early February, the XFL's television audience has sunk into the bowling-for-dollars zone. Attendance has declined as well; only 13,081 fans attended the Xtreme's last playoff game in the Coliseum. Coverage pretty much has disappeared from most newspaper sports sections: By XFL standards, a line of agate type on the stats page represents a public relations coup.

Football purists dismiss the XFL as a freak show, an overt attempt to turn the proud sport into something akin to pro wrestling's gaudy matinees. True enough. And yet, despite this criticism--or perhaps because of it--I must confess that lately I've been taking longer and longer peeks at televised XFL games. I think I know why.

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It began, I suppose, with He Hate Me. I was surfing channels and stumbled upon an XFL broadcast. Here was a professional football player, in the middle of a televised game, being interviewed on camera about why the words "He Hate Me," as opposed to his name, were stitched across the back of his Las Vegas Outlaws jersey. The answer was mostly gibberish, something about playing with a chip on his shoulder.

The moment, though, was wonderfully ludicrous--and a clear statement that this new league was not the National Football League. And that is a good thing. The trouble with the NFL is that somewhere along the trail of touchdowns it became confused. It came to see itself, not as sport, but as religion. From an NFL perspective, this running back with "He Hate Me" on his jersey would be akin to a priest mounting the altar in an aloha shirt.

NFL players simply are not allowed to wear nicknames like "The Truth" or "E-Rupt" on their shirts. NFL rule makers, for Pete's sake, fret constantly about how much "celebrating" to allow after touchdowns. It is a league that has turned its championship game into the equivalent of a national Holy Day. New popes attract less press than a winning Super Bowl quarterback.

Well, the XFL, on its Web site, refers to its championship game "the Big Game at the End," an obvious poke at Super Bowl self-importance. In also has a set salary scale that pays the winning players more for each game than the losers, which tends to amp up the fourth quarter. Of course, savvy followers of big-time college football might wonder what's so innovative about paying players to win, but XFL players actually get paid over the table.

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I once spent several months working with the late Harry Usher on a memoir of his tenure as commissioner of the long-gone United States Football League. In his efforts to save the league, Harry had developed a theory about professional sports in general and the NFL in particular. He believed that the NFL, by carefully preserving its monopoly--holding expansion in check, locking up the networks, killing or co-opting upstart leagues--had created an artificial scarcity.

This scarcity drove up ratings, but it also caused cities without NFL teams to go crazy in their efforts to obtain one. It made existing NFL franchises lethargic. It was possible for even mediocre teams to sell out, Sunday after Sunday--and if the fans got wise, another city would be waiting down the road, arms and wallet opened wide. Scarcity also limited opportunities for players. Harry proudly noted that 170 USFL players were picked up by NFL teams after his league folded--and so much for the idea that there wasn't enough talent to support expansion.

And now we are at the heart of what I find attractive about the XFL. (No cheerleader jokes, please.) Sports can be seen as a constant and often cruel winnowing process. It begins as early as Little League. At every level up the ladder, more players are told they don't have the stuff, that they are done. At some point, it's not strictly about talent. It's also about luck, team politics, the inexact science of scouting.

Most XFL players were superstars in high school, standouts in college--He Hate Me, a.k.a. Rod Smart, was an all-conference running back at Western Kentucky. Their desire to stay in the game fairly leaps off the television screen. It is why I watch, why I get a kick out of these upstart leagues, goofy touches and all. They let players play a little longer. They keep dreams alive, if only for one more season.

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