It Seems Gumbel’s ‘Leash’ Comments Fits Free Speech but not NFL offices/censors

By Gregory Moore
Updated: August 22, 2006

SAN ANTONIO — Paul Tagliabue and many in the NFL are upset with comments that Bryant Gumbel made during last week�s broadcast of �Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel�. According to various stories, incoming commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Network brass Steve Bornstein will discuss the comments on September 1st.

If you haven�t read or heard the comments, Gumbel said in his closing diatribe that Tagliabue needs to show Goodell what drawer he keeps Gene Upshaw�s leash. It�s an orator statement based upon possibly observations on various labor deals over the years as witnessed by the veteran reporter and it is something that should not be held against him but possibly will.

The problem with Gumbel�s comments are basically three fold: 1) he spoke them on a show that has free reign of the NFL�s influence; 2) he spoke those words during a time that he had not yet signed with the NFL Network as their play-by-play voice on the eight games they will broadcast (he has since been hired of course after this taping of his HBO show); 3) he only spoke words that so many former players feel are as true as the sky is blue on sunny days and gray and cloudy when it rains on their parade.

Taking these points in no particular order, if Tagliabue wants to fire Gumbel or at least have his successor do so, then look for a nice legal battle to ensue on September 2, 2006. The last time I checked, free speech is supposed to be alive and well and that you should not be fired based upon an assumption that is of your own volition. Gumbel is a commentator and if he is not allowed to express himself on a topic, then what good is his show, his contributors or himself? Secondly, I can see why the league may want to take the route of firing him but again, the show was taped long before he signed the contract to be the play-by-play voice and you cannot hold him accountable for something he said before he was hired. Lastly, talk to any former NFL player who has tried to get better benefits and they might agree with Gumbel�s assessment. As a matter of fact a good majority of them may want to throw Gumbel a party for taking such a stance.

But what the NFL is doing is showing exactly why many in the broadcast industry do not want their play-by-play announcers to have a voice of their own. In a sense Gumbel�s words are ringing true because most teams and/or leagues have their announcers on a short leash. Many of these announcers cannot criticize the ownership group or the players and the fans know it. For a fledgling network like the NFL Network, many are already believing that every single person that works for that network are nothing more than �yes� men to the big man (the league). And when it comes to many leagues dealing with player associations, they too have them on a short leash. The only union that truly has power to tell the ownership, ‘screw you, we don’t want this. Change it or we’ll strike” and mean it is Donald Fehr and the MLBPA. Just look at the average retirement salary for those former players and compare them to retired players from the NBA, NHL OR NFL. There is a ring of truth to what is being said and it’s hitting very close to home with the NFL.

Was Gumbel wrong in his assessment of how the league handles the union? Who�s to say he was or was not wrong in his personal assessment. Only Gene Upshaw and the league know the true score on that matter. However if the NFL really wants to show its fans that it is all access for the media (and the fans), it will have to let guys like Gumbel express themselves without fear of losing their jobs. If the league decides to fire him for his comments, they will validate his point to the fans.

After all this is a country where free speech exists and nobody is threatened by �Big Brother�. Right?