They say you can judge people by the company they keep. In which case, how should we judge NBC Sports now that it's partnering with the World Wrestling Federation in a new football league?

Yes, indeed, they're proud as a peacock at NBC not to be just the home of the Olympics but the home of the XFL, the WWF's new professional football league. And we're supposed to be encouraged by the fact that NBC and the WWF are promising "the brand of smash-mouth football that fans crave."Fans of what? Professional wrestling?

Let's assume for a moment that, unlike the WWF, the eight-team XFL (which begins competition in February) will be all about genuine competition. That it won't be staged. That the outcome won't be predetermined. Players will get more money if they win, and that's supposed to prove to us it's real. (Although WWF chieftain Vince McMahon said that his players won't be tested for steroids. Just like his wrestlers aren't tested for steroids.)

Even if all that is true, it's going to be tainted by the over-the-top antics of its parent company. And NBC Sports could well find itself painted with the same broad brush.

Gee, and they thought the Olympic bribery scandal might prove to be a problem.

NBC is going 50-50 with the WWF on ownership of the XFL. And owning the league means that, should it succeed, the network can't lose it as they lost the rights to the NFL. (Actually, NBC gave up the rights to the NFL -- a decision that looks dumber and dumber as CBS makes a success of the supposedly less valuable AFC package.)

NBC will air regional and national XFL games on Saturday nights from February through April, as well as the league's championship game. They're still looking for a cable outlet to carry additional games.

What's perhaps most scary about this is that it might actually work. As distasteful if not downright damaging as the WWF can be to viewers, it's also extremely successful at reaching the young male viewers advertisers are willing to pay premiums for.

"The absolute key to the success of this league lies in the incredible success Vince McMahon has had throughout his career in reaching the most elusive audience in television . . . young males," NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol said in announcing the deal. He went on to point out the scary statistic that during the recently completed season of "Monday Night Football," the WWF's "live event programming" drew 47 percent more young male viewers (ages 12-24) than did the NFL games on ABC.

And the XFL is definitely a made-for-TV league -- it will have mikes and cameras on the sidelines and the lockerrooms; it will institute rules like eliminating fair-catches and requiring only one foot inbounds on pass receptions are designed to make games more exciting; and rules like 35-second play clocks and 10-minute halftimes are designed to make games faster.

Expect to see the kind of showboating that purists decry but professional wrestlers revel in -- we're promised that the XFL "will encourage individuality and the natural expression of joy and emotion on the field of play."

However, all of this still begs the question of whether TV viewers really want to see another football league. NBC and the WWF plan to start their games when "interest in football is at its absolute peak -- one week after the Super Bowl." Which is also the time when a lot of people have been pretty much football-ed out after a season that began way back in September.

Altogether, this is an extremely iffy proposition for NBC. It's easy to jump into the mud with people like McMahon; it's a lot harder to clean yourself up afterward.