In agreeing to air the Focus on the Family's anti-abortion commercial with Florida quarterback Tim Tebow next Sunday, CBS has touched off a discussion on whether the relatively bliss-filled nature of sports television should be intruded upon by real life.
No matter which side you take on the issue of abortion (and we're not taking one here no matter how hard you may look for it), CBS' choice to run the ad opens the door for advocacy groups of all political stripes and causes to spread their messages to sports telecasts, which, by and large, have been devoid of that kind of controversy.
Indeed, six years ago, CBS declined to run a commercial from the United Church of Christ that touted its welcoming approach to gays and to people who feel uncomfortable with more conservative-leaning churches.
Since then, the network said in a statement, it has moderated its approach to advocacy ads, "after it became apparent that our stance did not reflect public sentiment or industry norms on the issue. In fact, most media outlets have accepted advocacy ads for some time."
That's true, but those ads typically run during news or entertainment programs, not during sports, where audiences include younger viewers.
The network statement added that its "standards and practices process continues to adhere to a process that ensures all ads -- on all sides of an issue -- are appropriate for air. We will continue to consider responsibly produced ads from all groups for the few remaining spots in Super Bowl XLIV."
If that's the case, then all bets theoretically are off. Can the network decline tastefully, "responsibly produced" ads from, say, the United Church of Christ, covering the same area from six years ago, or from a group advocating gay marriage?
And, with the advertising market in a downward state, the Super Bowl would hardly be the only high-profile event where controversial ads would run.
CBS, for instance, has the men's Final Four and the Masters on its calendar between now and April. Those events, particularly if Tiger Woods makes his return to golf at Augusta, could draw big ratings numbers, which would make them quite attractive to advertisers with a contentious message to get across.
It's worth noting that Augusta National exercises more control over advertisers than other events, so the chances of a controversial ad showing up on the Masters are practically non-existent, though anything is possible.
And don't think that NBC and FOX officials aren't watching this. If the Tebow ad does air without incident, you'd have to think that groups would approach the networks that will carry the upcoming Olympics and Daytona 500, respectively, to run their ads.
Also, still to be determined is the effect of last week's Supreme Court ruling that corporations are as entitled to political free speech as individuals on the ad market.
We've come to expect campaign ads from candidates leading up to elections during high-traffic sporting events in the fall. Last week's ruling may lead to more political ads during baseball, football and basketball games in October and November.
Lost in the flap is the idea that the NFL has tacitly given its approval to CBS to inject politics or advocacy into its ultimate showcase, if not to the issue itself.
The league, in a statement, placed the onus on CBS, saying that the network's standards and practices department approved the content of the ad as "appropriate for the audience. We take no issue with CBS' decision."
An NFL official told FanHouse in an e-mail that league officials have seen the Tebow ad and "did not object to CBS' decision to air it."
In other words, the NFL is content with an ad that takes a side on the most divisive issue of our time airing during its marquee event, when racy spots for dot.com sites have been declined.
The brouhaha over the Tebow ad runs contrary to the way television usually works. Normally, when there are controversies regarding advertisers, the point of contention is about the content of the program where the ad runs or with a performer on the program (i.e., when advertisers pulled out of David Letterman's late night show when news of his affair with an employee became public).
In this case, the debate runs the other way, with the focus going to the ad rather than the program. Of course, if the Tebow ad runs late in the Super Bowl and the Saints-Colts game becomes an early blowout, all the furor will be for naught, as a lot of the audience may tune out.
By the way, the Tebow ad is said to be "benign," according to those who have seen it, but the ad's content, frankly, is only part of the equation.
Closing the Door
A beat writer who has covered the Saints all season and has been credentialed for the Super Bowl was barred from access to the team for the final three days they will be in New Orleans before they head to Miami for the championship game.
Brian Allee-Walsh, who covers the Saints for NewOrleans.com, was told by a member of the team's media relations office that he would not be credentialed for availability to the players and the coaches Thursday, Frdiay and Saturday.
Greg Bensel, the Saints' senior vice president of communications, told the website in a letter that the team was "falling in line with what the majority of the other NFL teams are doing with regards (to) the numerous dot.com's that cover our teams."
The team first restricted access to the website in late November, and the restriction escalated in late December until the NFL and the Pro Football Writers Association tried to mediate the situation.
The Saints had permitted NewOrleans.com to observe practice until just after Allee-Walsh arrived in mid-November. Allee-Walsh was credentialed by the league for each of the Saints' first two playoff games, and was allowed to cover coach Sean Payton's news conference Monday, as well as interview players in the locker room at the team's practice facility. The players were given Tuesday and Wednesday off and returned to work yesterday.
The website, which launched 19 months ago, has been credentialed for full Saints coverage from the beginning. NewOrleans.com also is credentialed by the NFL, which is giving it two seats for the Super Bowl, as well as the Hornets of the NBA, Louisiana State and Tulane.
Dropping the Ball
Monday is not only is the start of Black History Month, but also marks the 50th anniversary of a lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, N.C., one of the signature moments of the civil rights movement.
The North Carolina A&T men's basketball team is home that night to Morgan State, and the setting would have made for a great evening of history, if not a decent game.
Instead, the ESPNU game that night is between Prairie View A&M and Alabama State, and with all due respect, someone missed a golden opportunity.
The Australian Open men's final between Roger Federer and Andy Murray will air live on ESPN2 at 3:30AM ET Sunday, and will be shown again at 10 a.m.
Sunday's Outside the Lines (ESPN, 9 a.m. ET) looks back on the aftermath of two events, the 1990 Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas fight and the 2000 shooting of Cherica Adams, the girlfriend of Carolina Panthers receiver Rae Carruth.
The NBA Game of the Week returns to ABC Sunday afternoon with a doubleheader. The opener matches Denver against San Antonio at 1PM ET, followed by the nightcap, which pits homestanding Boston against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Last, and perhaps least, ESPN presents the Pro Bowl, the All-Star Game no one wants to play in. Armed with additional cameras and microphones, as well as bolstered access, the Monday Night Football crew will air the game from Miami at about 7:20PM ET after two hours of Sunday NFL Countdown.