WASHINGTON If ever you wondered about how much owners of sports franchises really care about their fans, the NFL has taken a step toward providing the answer very little, unless you're a paying customer. When a church or homeless shelter tries to provide some wholesome entertainment for the less fortunate, the league's attitude is about the same as that ascribed to Marie Antoinette just before the French Revolution.
In what had to be the worst public-relations move since Custer threatened the Indians, some insensitive lawyers who represent the NFL ended up, as one headline stated, "pulling the plug" on big-screen TV parties for Sunday's Super Bowl, forcing cancellation of these affairs in churches and homeless shelters across the country. The popular gathering of parishioners and the destitute to eat, pray and root for their favorite team in places outfitted with the newest technology violates the league's copyright restrictions on screens larger than 55 inches, according to the league.
Only sports bars are excluded from the prohibition. So now we have the picture of wealthy owners of the NFL's hugely profitable enterprises promoting the interests of juke joints while trying to stifle the presumably wholesome efforts of clergy and caregivers. Have these guys in their multimillion-dollar suites really thought this over?
To soften the blow, the NFL told the churches and shelters they can show the game on regular TV sets. How generous. That's solid evidence that league owners and officials are as ignorant about the latest technical advances in television as they are insensitive. And that is saying something. Only a few of us old-timers still have those 19-inch analog sets we all used to crowd around in our basement recreation rooms to watch Broadway Joe Namath and his New York Jets sock it to the old Baltimore Colts.
Can they be unaware that many new houses come with what are called "media rooms," with 60-inch-or-larger HDTV screens, surround sound and theater seating? The screens just keep getting bigger and bigger, until they will be the size of the one on which I watched all those cowboy movies every Saturday afternoon at the Alhambra Theater.
But those who can't afford the still-hefty price tags and still want to watch the game in a pleasant communal setting, and do so without the fights, booze and din of the local watering hole, now are being told to buzz off.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, I have but one question: Are you nuts?
Some ministers tried to make things right by hosting the Sunday affair in their own limited quarters, presumably renting the biggest screen available. But it just wasn't the same, sports fans. If there is one single word that can be used to describe professional athletics, it is "greed." It pervades every aspect of every sport baseball, basketball, football and those who broadcast their events and it all comes at the expense of the fans about whom most players, coaches and owners couldn't care less.
The prices of seats and refreshments are so high at the arenas and stadiums, many of which were built by taxpayers, that few people outside those whose companies buy boxes or club seats can afford them. Several basketball franchises right now are in dire straits because they have priced their fans out of the picture to make multi-multi-multimillion- aires out of the players. They are looking for wealthier venues. Good luck.
The NFL's interference in the harmless activities of churches and shelters was just another in a series of PR disasters around its biggest annual Sunday show. Remember Janet Jackson's costume failure at one halftime and a series of vulgar, tasteless commercials? Those cost the league quite a lot in good will, and this latest gaffe is sure to do the same.Next year, if this hasn't been resolved with an updating of copyright language, every church in the United States should ignore the ban and see if the league's screen police can do anything about it. The chances are pretty good it would end the debate in a hurry and force a change in policy.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.