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Cup coverage runneth over with frank analysis

An unwritten law in sports TV, consciously or unconsciously, affects announcers as they comment on the events we watch.

Here’s roughly what it says: Candor is inversely proportionate to the importance of the TV contract to the network. In other words, the more valuable the TV deal becomes, the less free the announcers feel to tell it like it is.

I’ve been noticing this since last year as network baseball announcers have said absolutely nothing about steroids. And the law was on display big time over the past week with the wrap-up of the NHL’s Stanley Cup Finals on NBC and the first two games of the NBA Finals on ESPN-owned ABC.

I can’t recall ever having heard more straight, unvarnished commentary on a sports series than on NBC’s prime-time Stanley Cup coverage of the Anaheim Ducks-Ottawa Senators series. The reason? The NHL is so desperate for network exposure that it entered a deal in which NBC pays no rights fee. The two sides merely agree to split ad revenue.

Voila! NBC can jolly well say what it wants — and did.

As Anaheim dispatched the Senators in five games, commentator Ray Ferraro went where almost no one goes. “I think (the Ducks) have taken the will out of Ottawa,” he said. Notes of contempt for the Senators actually were in his voice and that of Brett Hull, his studio partner.

Then there was former NHL coach Don Cherry’s Game 4 appearance on NBC. He called for liberalizing the rules against in-game fighting. “The fans love the fights, the players love the fights, the people go nuts on the fights,” he said. “I hate to get NBC hacked and everything, but I’m told the reason (the league) cut it down is because they wanted U.S.A. people to watch it. ‘Families.’ Can you believe that? That is the dumbest thing I ever heard in my life.”

Political correctness be damned.

It was a different story for the NBA Finals on ABC, whose sports are produced entirely by ESPN, which pays the league some $400 million a year. Stephen A. Smith, ESPN’s best and most candid commentator, was nowhere to be seen. And for the most part, its announcers were not nearly as forthright as NBC’s.

Let’s face it. These Finals so far have been a total and obvious mismatch. That could change tonight as the series moves to Cleveland. But until now we haven’t heard NBC-like honesty from ABC’s announce team of Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson.

Where is the funereal-looking Van Gundy on the candor meter? His most memorable contribution so far has not been to assess the games but to diss the city of San Antonio on Sunday night, saying there’s nothing for LeBron James to do there except look at game tape.

As for Jackson, he’s a disaster as a commentator. He often doesn’t listen to what his partners are saying and comes up with stunningly trite comments. ESPN should take the intelligent Jon Barry from its studio set and put him in Jackson’s chair immediately.

BARBARO AND RUFFIAN — Two stories about horses with a common thread — they both went down while racing and died — have been on the air of late. One is worth watching while the other is not.

HBO’s “Barbaro” documentary, which debuted Wednesday and is being re-aired tonight and throughout the next two weeks, reaches the excellence of most HBO sports films. It expresses the truism, in writer Frank Deford’s phrase, that “animals can sometimes take us to a place we cannot reach by ourselves.”

It’s the full, honest story of Barbaro, who won the Kentucky Derby last year, only to shatter his right rear leg in the Preakness.

“Ruffian,” which aired on ABC on Saturday night in connection with the network’s broadcast of the Belmont Stakes that afternoon, is the often hokey, occasionally arresting story of the filly who broke down in a match race against Foolish Pleasure in 1975. ABC is starting a DVD sales push today, but it will be a Grade-B buy.

What’s most irksome to me about the movie is it takes frequent liberties with the facts and with the character of Bill Nack, who is portrayed in the film. I know Bill Nack. He’s one of the premier horse-racing and boxing writers in sports in the last half-century, not an ink-stained hack who sucked up to horse trainers, as the movie suggests.

Bill Taaffe was an award-winning TV-Radio sports columnist for Sports Illustrated. His “Remote Control” column is published Tuesday. He can be reached at taaffe-reviewjournal@earthlink.net.

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