[17 July 2007]
“Dancing about architecture” is a phrase of uncertain parentage, but undeniable resonance. Used to describe both the difficulty and the absurdity of writing about music, the quip’s been variously attributed to Elvis Costello, Duke Ellington, Frank Zappa, and even Martin Mull. But its murky origins do little to detract from how perfectly the image fits the notion: some disciplines are destined to forever remain at odds with one another.
The original idea was to point out how the ineffable, emotional content of music could never be boiled completely down into words. And, while such a contention is wrestled with daily (by PopMatters writers and others), the same might also be said about sports. Consider the similarities: music and sports are essentially physical experiences and expressions that, in spite of best laid plans, often deviate from the script toward moments of individual improvisation that are, at best, difficult to explain with mere words. Why play a minor chord instead of a major? Why shake off the curve ball and throw the splitter? Often, the answer to these kind of questions are as predictable as they are unenlightening: “it just felt right”. It naturally follows then that, if music reporters have to contend with this ineffable efficacy, sports reporters must do the same.
Unfortunately for the average fan, few sports commentators are up to the challenge. The ones who are, not coincidentally, work almost exclusively in print. Authors like Dave Zirin and the late David Halberstam have produced insightful written commentary about sports, as their medium allows for the space and time needed to contextualize their subject. Like those music writers who add layers of consideration—discussing genres or movements or social influence, rather than relying on the musicians themselves to explain their work—Zirin, Halberstam, and a select group of others, take a more considered approach.
This kind of larger thinking, however, is about as common among the reductive, self-indulgent, misguided claptrap that passes for the majority of sports broadcasting these days as an athlete’s genuine response to a question—and for a related reason. Rather than understanding the experience of playing professional sports to be either a) so instinctual and individuated as to be beyond explanation or b) so predictable and obvious as to be beyond comment, reporter after reporter continues to bash their perfectly quaffed hairstyle against the brick wall of athletic cliché.
Instead of insight into the inner-workings of the game, fans are treated to such hackneyed standbys as “We’re just taking it one game at a time”, “I give my opponent a lot of credit”, or some variation of “We’re happy to get the victory” or “We’re disappointed by the loss”. Occasionally these fillers are punctuated with exaltations of thanks given to a higher power. In the end, however, the viewers of, and listeners to, such incisive reporting are no more informed than had they watched the game with the Mute button pressed.
But who’s to blame? Aren’t the athletes the ones repeating these tired phrases? The short answer is an undeniable “yes”, but a better answer is that this is only because the members of the broadcast sports media continue to insist upon the same line of questioning that’s been frustrating fans for decades. One definition of insanity is to repeat the same action and expect differing results. Yet, time and again, television and radio reporters claw their way through the post-game crowds, shoving aside fans and elbowing reps from rival stations, only to arrive, breathlessly thrusting a microphone toward the star’s victorious smile. “How do you feel?”
If you’re like me, the answer is “nauseated”. Having never played professional sports, I can only imagine that it must be a lot like that famous quote about war. To roughly paraphrase, it’s long stretches of boredom punctuated by fleeting moments of extraordinary excitement. And while I’m certainly not trying to equivocate the two, I would also think that sports and war can create a similar kind of instinctual behavior that only occurs when hours of training are put to the real-life test. In both cases, I can’t imagine there’s a lot of introspection involved. In one scenario, you use your training to try not to get shot; in the other, to try to score more points than your opponent. So what possible profundities can result from the questions posed to athletes about what they hoped to achieve with their play?
Still, into the vast void of impenetrable motivation (better known as the psyche of the modern athlete) are poured oceans of speculation, conjecture, opinion, and guesswork by sports journalists who, for lack of anything else to say, make a living by repeatedly saying very little. Flip on sports radio, for example. Every town (at least in America) will put forth its favored son, a local jock who never quite made it to the pro ranks and, yet, whose “experience” entitles him to pronounce judgment upon the day’s goings-on. More often than not, such “insight” is more accurately described as a thinly-veiled offshoot of the kind of conservative opinion mongering that dominates so much of the AM dial. Switch on your television. Color commentary, once intended to explain strategy as an adjunct to play-by-play reportage, has today evolved into a kind of cult of cartoonish personality.
There’s a certain lineage to all this. Howard Cosell’s cantankerous posturing gave way to Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder’s excitability (which doomed him when he was unable to self-censor his racist opinions), which gave way to John Madden’s onomatopoeiatic bufoonery, which, in turn, has left us with ESPN’s Chris “Boomer” or “The Swami” Berman’s Three Stooges impressions, NBA commentator Steven A. Smith shouting incessantly into his lapel mic, and Mark Jackson following suit by yelling repeated non sequiturs during the most recent NBA Finals series.
It could be argued, though, (and probably is in some network boardrooms) that sports broadcasting is itself a form of entertainment. No doubt Smith and Jackson were coached into their excitable states, either directly by their shows’ producers, or indirectly by noting the kind of success that’s awarded the “Boo-Ya!” set of sports reporters (ESPN’s Stuart Scott foremost among them) who came before. But what options are left to those of us who find the competition of sports entertainment enough? What can those of us do, who see all this vapid carrying-on a distraction from, not an enhancement to, the action on the field, course, or court?
Mercifully, there are exceptions to this onslaught. HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel takes a kind of 60 Minutes approach to sports, airing longer investigative pieces in favor of the more common approach: highlighted montages set to the latest nu-metal single. ESPN, for its part, has Outside the Lines, which follows a similarly sober approach. Oddly, however, what might have seemed to be the savior of sports broadcasting had lead us instead to the grimmest estimate yet.
ESPN, the self-described “Worldwide Leader in Sports”, developed ESPNEWS, a dedicated news channel whose inception was more indebted to CNN than MTV. Over time, however, and in a bid to copy the success of cable news, ESPNEWS’s formerly meat-and-potatoes programming has been inundated with the same sort of bells and whistles that set fans frantically pressing the remote in the first place. For example, two-thirds of the screen is now taken up with information other than what’s taking place on-camera. One scrolling bar advertises what topics are coming up, one provides with “up-to-the-minute” updates, while yet another box displays graphics on top of the news anchor’s reporting.
In addition to following CNN, FOX, and MSNBC’s bid to determine exactly just how many different sources of information can fit on a TV screen, ESPN has also put forth a variety of debate-style shows, in which sports reporters attempt to shout one another down while computer-generated graphics swirl around them. Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon star in perhaps the tamest of these, Pardon the Interruption—though we do get the topic scrollbar and the addition of a stopwatch that counts down the speaker’s time. Around the Horn sees host Tony Reali awarding and subtracting points to different commentators as he agrees or disagrees with them. The most egregious, however, is 1st and 10, which does it bestCrossfire imitation by pitting one reporter against the other in a knock-down, drag-out bout of verbal fisticuffs. Again and again, it’s not about the actual topics being debated by these shouting heads; it’s about who wins the argument.
Such shows and announcers distill the essence of what sports broadcasting has become: inflated opinion and over-hyped spectacle. You still may be able to find a box score buried deep in the pages of your local sports section, but that’s likely to be the general extent of unmitigated insight into a sporting contest. Of course, those statistics don’t offer flashing lights or exaggerated pontification. Amongst the din of today’s sports media, in fact, they’re a nearly silent part of the equation. But therein lay the attraction. The games are left to speak for themselves.