X Marks the Splat

The first thing -- and possibly the last -- you need to know about the new Extreme Football League is that Dick Butkus is the philosopher king of the rules committee. For those who don't remember Butkus (which is to say, virtually every fan the XFL hopes to attract), this is like asking Timothy McVeigh to write the federal crime statutes or hiring Marilyn Manson to dress George and Laura Bush for the inauguration. In his years as a linebacker with the Chicago Bears, dear children, Butkus harvested the vital organs of opposing players with an enthusiasm Hannibal Lecter would admire. Thus, the new league, which begins its initial bloodletting in prime time on February 3, has eliminated fair catches by punt returners, nixed kicked extra points and thrown out the "in-the-grasp" rule meant to protect the health of quarterbacks, among other things. Taunting and trash talk will be encouraged. And if the playing fields are spattered with blood, so much the better.

The XFL, which is a co-production of the World Wrestling Federation and NBC Sports (which got priced out of the National Football League market in 1998), also means to provide fans in the league's eight cities and all the viewers at home with, well, a more intimate experience of the game. Drew Pearson, the ex-Dallas Cowboy who now serves as general manager of the XFL's New York/New Jersey Hitmen, has vowed not to shave until the team wins. Microphones will be as prevalent on the field as adhesive tape. There will be cameras in the locker room at halftime, cameras in players' helmets, cameras in the stands, all looking for fights. Even before the first kickoff, cinematographers have invaded a shower room at the Memphis Maniax training camp -- not the players' shower, but the cheerleaders' shower. There Noelia, Mariah, Hallie, Cicely and others of the sisterhood cavorted in the altogether, more or less -- the NBC promotional spot's director reported that 28 takes were required to shoot enough footage that could pass muster with TV censors. The ad is already running on the Maniax Web site -- along with another peep at the cheerleaders called "Daddy Wants Some Popcorn."

Naturally, XFL broadcasts will cry out for a screaming color man. So NBC signed Jesse "The Body" Ventura, the former WWF grappler who got himself elected governor of Minnesota in the age of celebrity. Some political observers don't like Ventura moonlighting so shamelessly. Others can't wait until the league gets Saddam Hussein up there in the booth with him.

League president Basil V. DeVito Jr. minces no words when it comes to the XFL's reigning concept: "It's 'reality' programming wrapped in a sports event," he says. And if that conjures up the image of, say, ex-Denver Bronco guard David Diaz-Infante (now a member of the XFL's Las Vegas Outlaws) indulging in unnecessary roughness with half a dozen babes from Temptation Island, that's just fine with DeVito. For his part, NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol, the man who brought you the Sydney Olympic Games just ten or twelve hours late, says simply: "We will speak the language of the young audience."

Of course, that is also the language of Vince McMahon, the WWF schlockmeister who transformed "pro wrestling" from a dimly lit sideshow on the backstreets of America into the bawdy, relentlessly televised, hugely profitable national theater of the masses -- jam-packed with shining heroes and dark villains acting out basic melodramas almost any guy swilling a jumbo Bud in the last row of the balcony could write. "We understand the middle class," McMahon says.

To support that belief, he put up $100 million (so did NBC) to get the XFL off the ground. The new league's supporters call it "throwback football." Blood-and-guts, in-your-face, no-holds-barred football. Football designed to win back the hard-rocking, hard-partying, face-painted 18-to-35 male demographic that has slipped from the NFL's grasp in recent years -- an audience NBC believes wants its entertainment raw, sexual, violent and devoid of subtlety. Don't be looking for well-tailored suits in the luxury suites at XFL punch-ups in San Francisco or New York or Birmingham. Los Angeles doesn't have an NFL club these days, but it's got the L.A. Extreme, and coach Al Luginbill, late of San Diego State and Amsterdam, Holland, vows to kick ass. Don't expect nicety at the Chicago Enforcer-Orlando Rage game on February 3. In Mondo McMahon, injured linebackers will be required to paste their noses back onto their faces and fight on. Team cheerleaders will be encouraged to date players -- and to talk about it afterward. Defensive backs will be expected to physically harass receivers all the way down the field. The uniforms will be arena-league garish, festooned with clenched fists and swords and glaring devil faces straight out of slasher flicks. The ball will be painted half black, half bright red.

All this and more is set to kick off just six days after the Super Bowl. The hardcore, obsessed football fan jonesing for a fix twelve months a year will have no withdrawal pains this February. The defunct United States Football League tried to bridge the same gap back in 1983, of course, but that brand of football was largely tame, and the season didn't start until March, when sports junkies were wrapped up in the NCAA basketball playoffs and the sweet renewal of baseball. Clearly, the XFL is determined to strike while football emotions and football tempers are still hot.

Aside from rule relaxation, not-so-mock carnage and a game-night atmosphere more appropriate to Hulk Hogan than Dave Logan, how good will the actual football be? Hard to say. But a glance at XFL coaching staffs, player rosters and salary structures reveals a couple of things: Despite its bloody intentions, theatrical bluster and flagrant misogyny, the XFL may provide a second (or third) shot at some kind of glory for a few participants, and there will be incentive to win.

Among three dozen or so ex-NFL players trying it again: ex-Dallas Cowboys star receiver Alvin Harper is suiting up for Memphis at the tender age of 32; his new teammate is former Colorado Buffalos running back (and Heisman Trophy winner) Rashaan Salaam, who worked for the Bears, Packers, Raiders and Browns in just five seasons. The Birmingham Bolts have signed a pair of memorable ex-college quarterbacks, Florida State's Casey Weldon and Alabama's Jay Barker, along with Iowa State's record-setting tailback, Troy Davis. Former Maryland quarterback Scott Milanovich, whose entire NFL career consisted of two passes good for nine yards at Tampa Bay in 1996, has resurfaced with the Los Angeles Extreme. His teammates now include former Broncos linebacker Mike Croel, who left Denver in 1994, and every Denver fan's favorite first-round draft choice, inept ex-UCLA quarterback Tommy Maddox. Another failed and unloved Bronco, wideout Marcus Nash, is playing for Memphis. A pair of cast-off Ryans from the University of Wyoming -- fullback Christopherson and receiver Yarborough -- are with the XFL's San Francisco Demons and Chicago Enforcers, respectively, and CU's Marcus Stiggers has also landed in the Windy City.

If you're a stone college football fan or a committed NFL historian, you'll surely ferret out some other vaguely familiar names once Jesse Ventura starts tongue-lashing NBC audiences on Saturday nights. But age and mediocrity look to prevail in the league where Dick Butkus makes the rules and Vince MacMahon pumps up the sleaze. As for motivation, kickers will earn $35,000 in flat salary this year, quarterbacks $50,000 and all other players $45,000 -- but every time a team wins, each player and coach will get a $2,500 bonus. In April, the league champions will get a million bucks to split between them -- almost enough to cover Shannon Sharpe's annual limousine bills, or Troy Aikman's mortgage. This is throwback football complete with throwback paychecks.

Will America buy it? At least the part of America that drives a Chevy Camaro, gets pierced in every extremity and lusts after the latest testosterone-fueled CD from Slipknot? No telling. But if you believe in omens, make what you will of this: Two weeks ago, the new XFL Spalding blimp, a 143-foot-long approximation of the league's black-and-red football, emblazoned hugely with the three initials that make the hearts of McMahon and Ebersol sing, was completing its maiden voyage from Las Vegas to Northern California when it crash-landed unceremoniously on the roof of a restaurant in downtown Oakland. Not even naked cheerleaders could reinflate it.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo