Pro football scheduling mediocrity

By , Sports editor of The Christian Science Monitor

Just two years ago the San Francisco 49ers were tied for the worst record in pro football (2-14), and the Cincinnati Bengals weren't much better at 4-12. Last season they were both still losers, at 6-10. Now they're in the Super Bowl.

Pete Rozelle loves it. Parity is the buzzword in the National Football League these days, but even in their wildest dreams Pete and his schedule-tinkerers probably never dared hope to achieve it so quickly - or in such a drastic turnabout fashion.

Now that they have it, though, I wonder if they won't find out that this wasn't really what the sporting public wanted after all.

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Oh, the fans should enjoy Super Bowl XVI, all right. I'm looking forward to it myself. I think Cincinnati and San Francisco are a pair of talented, well-coached, and exciting teams that put on a good show to get there and will probably put on another one Sunday.

I'm not happy, though, about what all this means for the future - especially insofar as it encourages Rozelle & Co. to keep weighing the scales against winning teams by making them play tougher schedules than the losers do. They call it a quest for ''competitive balance'' (another buzzword), but what they have really created is an artificial system designed to reward failure and penalize success.

Staying on top is hard enough anyway, given such elements as complacency; the tradition that everyone points for the champion; and the fact that teams draft new talent in reverse order of their finish. When you add this new scheduling wrinkle, it seems pretty much a certainty that perennial champions like the old Green Bay Packers and the more recent Pittsburgh Steelers are about to go the way of the dinosaurs.

I'll agree that a certain amount of competitive balance is desirable. You don't want too much disparity among teams, and it is nice to be able to say, ''On any given Sunday, etc.'' But the draft is already one concession to the weaker teams, and manipulating the schedule on top of it seems a bit much.

The standard joke now (let's hope it's a joke) is that Pete and his friends won't be happy until every team is 8-8. Even if it doesn't come to that, the road they have embarked on certainly seems to be one of ''creeping mediocrity,'' or, as Dallas Cowboy president Tex Schramm once characterized it, ''creeping socialism.''

The idea of handicapping a successful athlete or team to give weaker ones a better chance flies in the face of everything that major league competition is supposed to be about. Handicaps are OK in weekend golf or tennis outings, for example, but you don't see Tom Watson or Jack Nicklaus forced to give away a few strokes at the US Open or John McEnroe told to play the doubles lines at Wimbledon. Ditto in bowling, running, and other individual sports where handicaps are sometimes given in friendly competition, but never in the top circles.

The only such athletes who get advantages, in fact, are those who earn them by winning - top-ranked tennis stars who get seeded so that they avoid other leaders until the late rounds, boxing champions who get the benefit of keeping their titles in case of a draw, etc. But nobody is ever given a break for losing so that he'll have a better chance of catching up.

The same goes for all the major league team sports, too - or at least it did until Rozelle and his people changed their scheduling procedures in 1978. They said they wanted to create more close games week by week, that such balance is what builds fan interest, and that the entertainment factor has to be considered along with the competitive one, since pro football is in fact a combination of the two.

Even if these arguments were true, they would hardly be reason enough to alter such a basic concept of fair competition.But the biggest irony of the whole situation is that the arguments themselves are incorrect.

Fans want glamorous, successful teams to root for, to root against, or just to enjoy watching. Think what hockey would have lost over the years without the long winning tradition of the Canadiens. Or basketball without the Celtics. Or baseball without the Yankees. Or pro football (are you listening, Pete?) without those Packers and Steelers.

Furthermore, many of these teams built their winning traditions in pre-television times, when fans in other cities could see them only very occasionally. If the public was happy with that situation then, it should be ecstatic now when such dynasty-type teams can be seen by everyone so frequently on TV. But unless Rozelle and his schedule-makers change their ways (which doesn't seem likely), there soon won't be any more football teams like that for us to watch.

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