TV or NFL: Who Makes the Call?

Those making decisions for newspapers, radio and television have lived with the lingering migraine of what to do with gambling information in connection with sports coverage.

In a country in which betting on games is not legal, for the most part, what posture is to be taken by the media in the offering of odds on the various events?

Gamblers are a pain in the hip. You would like to transport all of them to Nevada and let them curl up in their own cocoon.

But their legions about the land are so vast and the sums they bet so immense that those responsible for coverage must make troublesome decisions.

Do they ignore odds, point spreads and the like because gambling, for the most part, isn't legal?

Or, with exhausted resignation, do they conclude: "Look, either we move to Magic Mountain or face life as it is. Gambling is rampant at levels ranging from office bets to bookmaker accounts. Pool cards abound. Governors bet apples against country hams. We go with the flow."?

In the mid-1970s, network television decided to go with the flow, enlisting a savant named Jimmy the Greek to impart betting information on upcoming football games.

In his day, of course, Jimmy went broke betting, but his knowledge in the field was wide and, as our late colleague, Red Smith, used to say of experts:

"An expert is a guy who was right once."

But Jimmy ventured his opinions under wraps, avoiding odds and sizing up games in such gentle terms as "razor's edge," "slight favorite," "favorite," "heavy favorite" and "prohibitive favorite."

He would be followed on TV by scholars quoting actual point spreads, leading to specialists advising viewers whether to take the points or spot them.

This year, the National Football League chose to rise against this practice, specifying that networks and cable companies bidding for its games refrain from broadcasting gambling information.

And, as you possibly read, this has led to the uncoupling by ESPN of Pete Axthelm, whose calling was to inform the faithful whether to take or spot.

With this policy imposed by the NFL and accepted by those telecasting its games, we enter latitudes more sensitive than those related to gambling itself.

Do you allow sports promoters to be editors?

And, if so, do networks counter and tell promoters that in order for their games to be covered, they must outlaw blindside tackles, which are injurious to health?

It occurred one day to late commissioner Bert Bell that he didn't want player fights to be seen on television. When a couple of guys started mixing it up, the camera would turn to the stands.

In those days, promoters called the shots. An announcer at the Masters golf tournament referred to the crowd, almost playfully, as a "mob."

CBS was informed sharply by the club president: "Galleries at Augusta National are not mobs."

The announcer was kicked off the telecasting team.

But, with time, the iron hand of the promoter would melt, yielding to conditions in which networks, independently, would assign announcers, who would report events as their judgment dictated.

Only at local levels has broadcasting remained in the pocket of promoters. It was that way a half-century or more ago; it is that way today. Promoters control radio and TV of their events.

And a serious effort to stop it never has been made.

But at the national level, TV was recapturing its spring dignity when all of a sudden the NFL is heard from, telling networks they can't televise games if they permit talk about gambling.

That call is the networks', not the NFL's, just as it is a newspaper's call on how to deal with odds.

Some choose not to run odds. Others run them obscurely. Still others actually buy information from gambling services, offering betting data in great detail.

Questioned about its poaching on the news coverage process, the NFL has promised that having silenced TV talk on gambling, it will impose no further restrictions.

But most dangerous in any society is the guy who tastes blood.

If the networks don't muster the courage to fight this, they will find before long they will be back to crowd shots while the players are brawling on the field.

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