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Wednesday, February 7, 2001
Updated: September 13, 6:29 PM ET
More X than F might work

By Ralph Wiley
ESPN Page 2 columnist

"Whadda we got?"

I'd forgotten all about the XFL. Forgot it was debuting last Saturday night. I was nodding, splayed on my couch like a bag of dirty laundry. I dreamed. I dreamed I was Marvin Lewis, ice-cold defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens. I'd just taken the job as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Then I woke up.

Orlando Rage cheerleaders
Even provocative Orlando Rage cheerleaders couldn't keep the XFL in business for more than one year.
The phone was ringing. Road Dog, yammering away.

"You lookin' at this?" Dog asked me. "You lookin' at this? Whadda we got?"

At the same time, over the local affiliate of the National Broadcasting Company, the so-called head coach of the New York/New Jersey Hitmen, one Rusty (I'm Not Marvin Lewis) Tillman, was inspiring his troops by saying the same thing: "Whadda we got?" Tillman's confusion did not go a long way toward inspiring his troops. Troops? Such as they were, OK? The Hitmen turned out to be The Get-Hit Men, on their way to being shut out by the Las Vegas Outlaws.

In the stands, the Outlaws' rangy, fat-free cheerleaders were drawing fans' attention. They were dressed like Pocahontas -- if she'd run out of buckskin, and worked at a lap-dancing joint.

"It's bootleg. Double-A football," I said. "But they're hiding it well. Means they're pretty smart. It's not usually profitable to put smart on TV. So they're opting for female crotches. Even smarter. I'm impressed."

"C'mon, Dub! SAVAGE this crap! You ever seen anything like this in your LIFE?!" Dog exclaimed.

"Ease down, Dog. Ease down," I said. "Sure I have. Why, I remember when I was a kid growing up and crotch-accentuated cheerleaders were not on free TV just for the having. We had to be satisfied with pro football. In such cases, the football had better be damn good. And it was, in the NFL, when I was a kid. The NFL had Jimmy Brown. Enough said. But because it was a monopoly, it was constipated, stodgy -- especially in the eyes of a kid who hadn't yet learned to accept constipated and stodgy as his eventual lot in life. The NFL was 3 yards and a cloud of dust. Unless you were Jim Brown, in which case it was 5.2 yards and a cloud of dust.

"Along came the AFL -- well, along came a bunch of medium rich guys who wanted in on the action. They encouraged all kinds of innovations and celebrations -- remember that Oilers receiver Billy "White Shoes" Johnson -- and promoted to head coach or general manager the football smart guys like Al Davis and Hank Stram who knew how to win, instead of guys who looked like them, the way they do when the NFL gets all fat and comfortable -- like today, 2001, for instance. Today the NFL has guys who run around making sure everybody wears his uniform the same, checking to see how much white sock is showing, that uniform numbers conform by position, further depersonalizing the most impersonal American game.

Why do I say don't count out the XFL? Two reasons. Ebersol and McMahon. The men behind the XFL aren't the dumbest guys you'll ever meet. The men behind the XFL know us far better than we know them, and they also know sex and violence, not Allen Iverson, is the real Answer to the American viewing public.
R-Dub

"The NFL has become the Stepford Wives. Yeah, it took Artie Modell 36 years between championships with Cleveland, then the B'more Ravens, but hold the sympathy for Artie. He bought in back in '60-'61 for what?, a Wheaties boxtop and two mil -- or paper that represented two mil, anyway. Now he's selling the squad off in lots, for like a third of a billion per lot. The NFL is a cash cow for those in ownership seats in a way like no other American institution, excepting of course Congress. So every few years, some rich and semi-rich guys who ain't in pro FB are gonna want to get in. Believe it.

"Now, back in the early '60s, it was the AFL. The AFL threw the ball around and had funny rules and played in not the biggest cities, but it innovated, and if I'm not mistaken, eventually it made it, or at least some of its teams, like the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots, Oakland Raiders, New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans (nee Houston Oilers) made it into the NFL. One reason they forced a merger was that their games were broadcast by NBC, really a hell of thing back in the pre-cable days of three channels and a fourth with some snow on it. So eventually, by both hook and crook, many of the AFL owners got theirs, guys like Ralph Wilson and Lamar Hunt, guys who have now turned old and tired and fat and forgetful and constipated and never want to change, and only hire guys who look like them or who run one of those college plantations like Miami.

"Listen, my grandmother could win at Miami, and she's dead: 'Delonte, come play at the University of My-am-ah and honor the memory of Elizabeth Ophelia Taylor. You'll also get to play on national TV three times a year, with the best young players, agin the 'Noles every year, with one guaranteed West Coast trip, several optional sleepovers on Miami Beach, and you get to hang out with Luke, Jay Z, or whoever ...' What's Delonte gonna say? No? Butch (I'm No Marvin Lewis Either) Davis will find it harder to win up in the big league, at Cleveland, in the same division with Tennessee and Baltimore. Anyway, the upshot was, Ralph Wilson and Lamar Hunt and them old AFL owners, the mavericks who forced their way into the NFL, they became the men they had competed against, despised in many cases and ultimately brought to the table. Now ain't that the way?

"So don't count out the XFL, just because they get blown off by these so-called connoisseurs of football. The same guys who say they can't watch Double-A football posing as pro football will gush all over you about college basketball, which is the same thing, or college football, which is also the same thing, only with more wholesome-looking cheerleaders, which, actually, works just as well from a male point of view.

"Why do I say don't count out the XFL? Two reasons. Ebersol and McMahon. The men behind the XFL aren't the dumbest guys you'll ever meet. The men behind the XFL know us far better than we know them, and they also know sex and violence, not Allen Iverson, is the real Answer to the American viewing public.

"Now, Dogster, I could ply you with stories of how the old World Football League failed in the mid- '70s, how my college position coach, Fred Lane, said I should try out for the Memphis Southmen/Grizzlies. I asked who I'd be trying out against. He said, '... that's the only thing. They just signed Paul Warfield.' I could say if the Griz had signed me instead of Paul Warfield, they wouldn't have won as many games, but who cares how many games they won? Do you even recall the Memphis Southmen/Grizzlies? Of course not. And the money they spent on Warfield could have been used to keep me in pizza and perhaps buy their way into a meeting that would advance them toward a TV contract. They didn't have one. It killed them.

"I could tell you about covering the USFL back in the day for this little slick called Sports Illustrated. Barry Switzer called it, 'The Illy.' I could say how people laughed at me, scorned me and scoffed at me and, worst of all, edited me severely simply for doing what I was told to do, which was 'covering ' the USFL. Why do you think the Ralph Wilsons and Lamar Hunts at SI gave the assignment to me in the first place? Because I needed my big break? No. Everybody else ducked. But who cares about that?

"I could tell you Donald (Well, I'm Certainly Not Going To Be Marvin Lewis) Trump, as much as anybody, brought down the USFL by paying monstrous sums for the collegian Herschel Walker and the barely upright Brian Sipe, or that I saw Anthony Carter, Jim Mora, Carl Petersen, Steve Young, Mel Gray and Doug Williams be successful there. The USFL didn't make it because the guys behind it were thinking it was the football that mattered at first. It really ain't. What matters at first is the same thing that matters at college basketball and football games. People don't go for the football. Not at first. If the team is good, they'll come back, because everyone wants to be associated with and thought of as a winner.

"But what matters first is the atmosphere. What the upstart football leagues all lack in tradition, they must make up for in another way. It is doubtful that in one year, the XFL could field football teams that could challenge even the worst NFL teams -- not at $45K per player. Sex is a much more immediate sell. An American man -- or woman, for that matter -- doesn't need a poll or a ratings book to know if he finds a certain person in a certain place wearing certain things sexy, or whether or not he would mind seeing that person again next week.

"All that's required is a blind poll of one, a very private poll.

"So, Dog, to answer your question, whadda we got with the XFL?"

"Yeah?"

"What we got is atmospherics and Double-A football. Just skin, baby. And you know what's scary, Dog?"

"What?"

"... it could work."

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."