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NFL PREVIEW : WEEK 1 / COMMENTARY

84th Season Set to Kick Off

September 07, 2003|Jim Litke | Associated Press

This is why you have to like Paul Tagliabue:

Operating on the theory it's never too early to head off potential problems, the NFL commish has ordered refs onto the field 50 minutes before games to watch out for unsportsmanlike behavior during warmups, and if needed, to assess penalties ranging from disqualification to 15 yards on the opening kick.

Upon hearing the news, Oakland coach Bill Callahan probably thought about ordering his team into the parking lot to begin practicing kickoffs. After all, the benefits would be immediate and twofold.

First, kicker Sebastian Janikowski could gauge how much additional leg he'd need to kick through wind, rain and barbecue smoke. Second, violence-prone linebacker Bill Romanowski could stand alongside hundreds of people wearing Raiders jerseys and work on suppressing the urge to punch someone.

Guys like Romanowski and his just-scratch-the-surface brand of violence are one big reason why the NFL lifts the curtain on its 84th season as the slickest, richest, most popular and most muscular sports package in America.

In just the last few years, bags full of money have been poured into a rival league (the XFL) a movie ("Any Given Sunday") and a made-for-TV series ("Playmakers) with the idea of latching onto the NFL's coattails. What their limited -- and in the case of the XFL and "Playmakers," very limited -- success proves is that pro football is one of those few endeavors where life usually trumps art.

Precisely because all the hits in the NFL are real, the toughest part of Tagliabue's job is to tamp down the violence outside the white lines, rather than ramp it up, the way pro football's testosterone-fueled imitators invariably do. By that measure, it's been a so-so offseason.

The league has been plagued by its customary handful of drug and domestic-abuse cases (see Jimmy Smith in Jacksonville and Michael Pittman in Tampa Bay).

On the other hand, most of the headlines have been grabbed by the Giants' potty-mouthed Jeremy Shockey, for reviving a term most of us forgot after third grade, and Romanowski, who took a playground disagreement to new extremes by breaking teammate Marcus Williams' face with a vicious sucker punch during a fight in practice.

Still, this offseason has to be considered a success compared to the mess Tagliabue found himself facing about three years ago. After the 2000 Super Bowl, he was coming off a season in which players had been accused of murder and break-ins, pancaked refs and traded throat-slashing gestures -- and that's on top of the usual assortment of crimes.

On the eve of Super Bowl weekend -- some 60 hours before Baltimore's Ray Lewis would be arrested in a double murder outside an after-hours nightclub in Atlanta -- Tagliabue was asked about the violent image of his players.

He replied with a question of his own, "Can we separate ourselves from society?"

And then he answered it: "Of course not."

The admirable thing about Tagliabue is that he didn't throw up his hands and quit trying. A lawyer by training and pragmatic by nature, the commissioner listed the variety of carrots and sticks the league employs to help players stay out of trouble (besides their own high-priced legal help) and then noted, "The track record of our players is far better than society at large. We have fewer incidents."

And to his credit, once the matter finally reached his jurisdiction, Tagliabue didn't hesitate to try and make an example of Lewis.

Under an agreement with prosecutors, the Ravens' linebacker pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice, and testified against his two former co-defendants. Soon after the trial, Tagliabue flew Lewis to California to speak at the league's rookie orientation sessions and not long after that, fined Lewis $250,000 for conduct "detrimental" to the game.

Today, as memory of the crime recedes and marketers reposition Lewis as a hardworking team player, he commands several times that amount to slap his name and face on video games and athletic gear.

While Lewis hates to discuss what happened that night, sanctioned violence is another story. He and Tagliabue and everybody else in the NFL are paid handsomely to know the difference, to practice and promote it during a three-hour window allotted every game Sunday.

That window is closed just a little bit more with this latest tweaking of the rules, which was done by the league's competition committee. Last season, the referees took the field 20 minutes before games. An NFL spokesman said the change wasn't made because of a specific case.

But it's not hard to figure out why the league wants to keep an eye on its players, if only for a half-hour more. For some of those guys, it's the only time they're going to behave all week.

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