Byline: PAUL FARHI Washington Post
The demise of the XFL will undoubtedly be hailed by some as a small victory against the lapping tide of vulgarity. This was, after all, supposed to be professional football dressed up as coochie show, engineered to touch the inner mook in every male over the age of 12. Columnist George Will dourly predicted, back in January, that the much-hyped league presaged ``a further coarsening of the culture.''
But the failure of the XFL teaches the opposite lesson: It wasn't sleazy enough.
League founder Vince McMahon, who made a fortune shredding the envelope of good taste, promised that the new league would offer copious bad behavior and general rudeness. Certainly, McMahon's instincts for pandering to the overheated passions of 14-year-old boys -- effectively, the XFL's core viewer -- were not in question. He had perfected the formula at the World Wrestling Federation, whose oiled behemoths and scantily clad amazons were the natural analogues of the XFL's running backs and cheerleaders.
So McMahon promised gladiatorial spectacle. He promised babe-gawking. He called the NFL an ``over-regulated, antiseptic league'' populated by a bunch of ``pantywaists.'' The XFL, he declared, would be different: ``When the quarterback fumbles or the wideout drops a pass, and we know who he's dating, I want our reporters right back in her face on the sidelines demanding to know whether the two of them did the wild thing last night.''
If polite opinion was outraged, so much the better. In marketing, this is known as ``segmentation,'' zeroing in on your potential customers by driving off everyone else.
In practice, however, the XFL never was able to shoot low enough. There were no soap-opera story lines, no off-field intrigues. During sideline interviews, the XFL's players had little of interest to say. (``It felt good. It felt real good,'' was as much insight as most players could muster.) The ``all-access'' cameras in the teams' locker rooms -- an interesting innovation, in theory -- proved rather dull as well.
The players and coaches, serious professionals all, eventually seemed to resent McMahon and NBC's belabored efforts to transform them into ``characters.'' The most interesting and honest of these sideline encounters occurred in the third week of the season when Rusty Tillman, a former NFL assistant coach turned XFL head coach, wheeled on a pesky cameraman and barked, ``Get outta my face!''
As for the cheerleaders, they quickly became irrelevant. Blame it on the leather trench coats. Even McMahon wasn't cruel enough to make his writhing babes strip to their hot pants and push-up bras in the dead of February in Chicago. Even revealed in all their glory, they weren't showing anything the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders haven't for 20 years.
With all the attitude and peripheral embroidery a weak imitation of professional wrestling, the XFL was stuck with being a football league. And a surprisingly plodding football league at that.
Despite incessantly promoting its own violence -- Jesse Ventura, the moonlighting Minnesota governor who served as an XFL color commentator, was especially eager to do so -- the bone-breaking quotient of XFL games proved a good deal less than the NFL's. It actually had to be -- the XFL's players were smaller and slower than the NFL's, and by definition weren't athletic enough (or maniacal enough) to make an NFL team.
The XFL's announcers (Ventura again) tried to mask this by stressing the league's quirky rules, such as a prohibition on fair catches. What they didn't mention as often is that these rules actually worked against excessive contact. The ``no fair catch'' rule promoted long runbacks instead of disabling tackles because the kicking team was required to give the punt returner a 5-yard ``halo'' in which to field the ball. Similarly, the XFL allowed pass defenders to ``bump'' the receiver in the open field -- until McMahon and NBC realized that this all but eliminated the kind of offensive fireworks that football fans love.
The NFL remains the most popular team sport on TV. McMahon's characterizations of the NFL as ``safe'' and ``the No Fun League'' were worse than P.T. Barnum bluster. Such comments set up expectations the XFL couldn't possibly live up to.