Through intrepid efforts and at great personal risk, your correspondent sneaked into a highly confidential recent meeting. Here's what I saw:
The setting is a large, well-appointed conference room at NFL headquarters in New York - accessible only via a single elevator. Dominating the room is a life-sized portrait of former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, illuminated by lights at least twice as bright as any others on the ceiling.
Gathered around the heavy oak table are NFL announcers from every network - play-by-play men, analysts, studio talking heads, even some sideline reporters.
The room is filled with a low hum of chatter, until a panel opens in the wall next to Tagliabue's portrait. Two large men in dark suits - forbidding with their shaved heads and dark glasses - step in, look around, then nod toward the opening. In steps commissioner Roger Goodell. The gathering falls silent.
Goodell: Thank you for assembling on one day's notice, gentlemen. I'll get right to the point. There is a matter of grave importance to discuss. I don't like some of what I'm hearing on the air. Some of you are saying nice things about the Baltimore Ravens.
(Some of the broadcasters look at one another, while others nod knowingly.)
Warren Sapp (with a confused expression): But the Ravens are in the AFC championship game!
Goodell: Warren, you're new to this, so I'll let someone who's been around longer explain it to you. (Looks over at Al Michaels.)
Michaels: Most of us in this room already know this, but it's official NFL policy to be against Baltimore. That goes from the league office to the referees and applies to any broadcast associated with the NFL. The decree was handed down by Paul Tagliabue a long time ago.
Tony Siragusa: But what about when we won the Super Bowl? And how about that noncall in the Titans game that helped the Ravens?
Goodell: Mistakes are sometimes made. (Glances at his two large "colleagues.") And those mistakes have a price.
Bill Cowher: Are you telling me that anytime my Steelers teams beat the Ravens, it was because we had help from the league?
Dan Marino (wiping off the sleeve of his jacket): Geez, Bill, say it, don't spray it.
Goodell: I'm telling you what the policy is. You can figure out the rest.
John Madden: Roger, I'm not going to take this anymore. If the Ravens are good, I'm going to say so.
Goodell (leaning forward on the conference table): John, you can choose to go that route, but let me remind you that a lot of funny things can happen to a bus while it's driving across the country.
Emmitt Smith: Mr. Commissioner, what about me? Am I doing OK?
Goodell: Frankly, Emmitt, I'm not sure why you're here. You're exempt. No one can figure out what you're saying anyway.
Rich Gannon (warily eyeing Siragusa, who is sitting next to him): May I change my seat?
Deion Sanders: I don't ever like to talk bad about one of my former teams.
Goodell: Deion, that's about three-quarters of the league. (Pauses.) Now, I need to make sure we get back on message, and that includes this Sunday. Nantz, Simms, you got that?
Phil Simms: Whatever you say, sir.
Goodell: Nantz? Nantz? Will you stop practicing your short irons and listen to me?
Jim Nantz (suddenly looking up from the back of the room, stopping his pantomimed motion in the middle of his backswing): You can count on me, Commissioner.
Goodell: OK, good. Listen, despite our best efforts, somehow Baltimore might make the Super Bowl. If that happens, we need something to discredit the Ravens. Glazer, I'll be counting on you to dig up some dirt.
Jay Glazer: Man, I don't know about that ...
Goodell (again leaning forward on the table): Let me be clear, Glazer. It's kind of hard to dial a cell phone with broken fingers. (One of the dark-suited "colleagues" smiles ominously.) Now that we all understand each other, I am hoping another meeting like this won't be necessary. Good day, gentlemen.
(Goodell disappears back through the wall, trailed by the two dark suits. The room is quiet.)
Siragusa: Hey, they going to feed us lunch?