Here comes the edgy XFL, oh my!

If you bad-mouth the XFL around Roosevelt Potts, he'll tell you why you're wrong.

The fullback with the XFL's new Memphis Maniax, a former NFL player, says his former league has had the fun drained out of it.

"Every time you give a big hit on somebody, you're looking for a fine in the mail," Potts says.

Not any more.

The XFL, created by Vince McMahon, who founded the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), starts its smash-mouth style of football tomorrow on NBC, hoping to attract the same 12-to-24-year-old males that pro wrestling does, a market eagerly sought by advertisers.

XFL officials call the league a return to the roots of football. A mud-in-your-mouthpiece sport. A return, they say, to how football was meant to be played.

"We think we have the right idea at the right time," says Billy Hicks, XFL vice president of administration. "We think fans will identify with our players." The XFL says the corporate influence on the NFL and overpriced tickets have made the league inaccessible to the average fan. XFL tickets top out at $25.

To distinguish itself from the NFL, and to try to speed up and spice up the action, the XFL has made some rules changes. For example:

* Defensive backs may use "bump and run" coverage downfield against receivers.

* Kickoffs must be returned unless the kick sails through the end zone.

* Touchdown celebrations are encouraged.

* To speed up the game, the play clock is shortened from 45 seconds to 35.

In the broadcasting booth will be Jesse "The Body" Ventura, the Minnesota governor and former WWF wrestler, who'll provide color analysis. The season concludes April 21 with a championship tentatively entitled "The Big Game at the End."

The XFL pledges to peel the sanitized wrapper off football and expose the raw innards. In the XFL, "they actually want you to have some sort of image," Maniax player Potts says. "I can bring my image ... without getting a big $15,000 fine."

Many players will wear mikes. Cameras will be everywhere, including in the locker rooms. And coaches may be asked why they didn't go for it on fourth down.

Salaries are drastically lower. Quarterbacks have a base salary of $50,000; kickers (although there are no point-after- touchdown kicks) receive $35,000; and all other positions $45,000. Incentives may also be earned when teams win games.

The XFL's Hicks says the rules changes "will eliminate the more predictable and boring plays, especially on special teams," he says. "We are offering changes that do not change the integrity of the game."

Some sports ethicists say this incarnation of football, and all the glitz surrounding it, tilts toward a questionable form of entertainment that could degrade the sport.

"This seems more like violence where violence is the intent to hurt a player ... [in order] to cause excitement," says Robert Simon, an ethics professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.

The XFL is teetering on a slippery slope, one that slides away from true sport to one of a search for entertainment through showing violence, some ethicists say.

"Some slippery slopes aren't real, but this one seems to be really dangerous in terms of the consequences," says Mr. Simon, who wrote the book "Fair Play: Sports, Values, and Society." He worries about some of the violence being misinterpreted by younger viewers. The advertised intensity of the game, he says, harkens back to the brutal play of college football teams at the turn of the century. After several deaths, President Theodore Roosevelt stepped in and demanded (and got) rules changed to increase safety.

What bothers Thomas Krizek, a professor of sports ethics at the University of South Florida, is the removal of rules that help protect players from injury.

"We like football players, [they are] the modern gladiator," he says. Football means physical contact at its most intense, [but] "it doesn't necessarily mean people are going to get hurt." One of the rules removed by the XFL is the "fair catch," which allows a vulnerable punt returner to not be tackled in exchange for not advancing the ball. Instead, in the XFL, defensive players must give the returner a five-yard "halo" before he is tackled.

"Making it more violent, I suppose, is going to make it more exciting," Dr. Krizek says. "But to the degree that it puts people unnecessarily at risk ... it's unethical."

"It seems pretty clear that the XFL is appealing to the prurient interests of male America, with their cheerleading stances as well as the anticipated violence on the field," says Richard Lapchik, director of the Center for the Study of Sports in Society at Northeastern University in Boston. Lapchik refers to the fact that the league plans to pay great attention to XFL cheerleaders, including allowing them to date XFL players.

"The quality of the game determines the long-term impact," Lapchik adds. "If it's a bad product, I think people are going to have a short interest in it, then move on."

Some observers have questioned the quality of football the XFL will provide. While no one is arguing that the level of competition will match the NFL, NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol has said XFL teams would be able to beat top-ranked college teams.

The last effort to form a major new pro-football league was short-lived: The United States Football League lasted only three seasons (1983-85). But the XFL has something the USFL never did: the deep pockets of the WWF and its partner, NBC. NBC has put $50 million toward the league in a two-year commitment.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has chosen to ignore the new league. "It's basically a nonissue. It's not what we worry about," he told the Associated Press.

Will the XFL succeed?

"It may, but if it does, I think it's a pretty sad commentary," sports ethicist Simon says. "What I think we really need is a lot more talking about what sports should accomplish, what that goal should be, more involvement of parents in maybe a national dialogue."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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