Game Theory

What we talk about when we talk about sports

What is it about the entertainment awards show that demands a minor-league Broadway number at the beginning? Consider February 15's ESPYs, the ESPN network's Oscars, which opened with a musical extravaganza that could have turned a dinner theater into a vomitorium. You had to be thinking in-joke as chunky opera singers shoehorned into various team uniforms belted out doggerel on the order of "Torre adore/Amazing Yankee team/World Series sweep-o/Not in wildest dream" to the strains of Carmen's "Toreador Song." On the other hand, given an audience presumably most familiar with this melody in its guise as the "Theme from The Bad News Bears," such staggering inanity might have been nothing more than well-intended condescension.

Fortunately, enough space remained between such pratfalls for something affecting to peep through. What appealed wasn't the larger-than-life glamour shed by jocks flexing their accomplishments, but sporadic glimpses of humility, as when longtime New York whipping boy Darryl Strawberry, on the mend from cancer surgery, presented the comeback player award to his boyhood friend Eric Davis, who had himself recovered from a similar illness the year before.

Another awards show, I know: Who cares? But these days sportscasting isn't just fodder for a channel or two, but an entire worldview, with self-mocking promos, clothing lines, periodicals. It's a market leader whose trademark style of delivering highlights has taken on the cultural sway of an aesthetic movement. The industry offers promotional opportunities so attractive that Disney bought out ESPN--and, not coincidentally, hastened to cross-promote it with SportsNight on ABC, a dramedy that treats sportscasting as serious moral and intellectual business rather than merely another oppressive workplace. But what do we talk about when we talk about sports? And more to the point, what don't we talk about?

We are the champions: ESPN SportsCenter hosts Jack Edwards and Linda Cohn
We are the champions: ESPN SportsCenter hosts Jack Edwards and Linda Cohn

Let's add up the wins first. ESPN has had the courage to face up to issues like race in sports as a whole (in a series of powerful town hall debates); fundamental inequities that allow players like the Redskins' Dexter Copeland to "graduate" from college despite being unable to read; and, hey, even a one-hour special on homophobia among athletes. (Which is a damn sight better than the previous total of no specials on homophobia among athletes.) So in that light--and in view of their decidedly conservative ownership--we can excuse the ESPYs for letting Reggie White go gentle into that good night, and for yet again cheering Michael Jordan, whose advocacy for the economy of the Fortune 500 is barely rivaled by the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. At least the subjects have been raised.

But there's a lot that gets brushed under the rug--and not just the unprecedented use of sports programming to sell or spin the networks' other offerings, as when Calista Flockhart, amid all those anorexia rumors, was "coincidentally" shown by Fox during the World Series munching a hot dog. Media muckrakers like Norman Solomon have taught us to expect network news to be compromised by its corporate bosses and unwilling to tell the stories higher-ups don't want told; sports viewers should at least recognize that such complicity applies here, too. Did the NBA's promotional clout muscle the American Basketball League off TV and out of business, the better to sell the Women's National Basketball Association? How much coverage will Fox devote to the problems of one of Rupert Murdoch's newest acquisitions, the Dodgers? Does Disney's control of the Mighty Ducks and Angels slant ESPN's views? Or Time Warner's of the Knicks or the Rangers? We shall see.

Maybe it's unfair to ask for real muckraking from what are, after all, bastions of corporate capitalism. But looking at the highlight shows gives us an opportunity to at least think through the cultural politics of watching and talking about sports. And the first thing that strikes you is the complicated racial sensibilities of SportsCenter, the dominant highlight show and clearly SportsNight's model. Remember when Howard Cosell called the Washington Redskins' Alvin Garrett "that little monkey" on national TV? Compare that to ESPN's designated homeboy, Stuart Scott, who revs up his commentary with bits from hard-core rappers like Big Punisher, source of the much-overused tagline "I'm not a playa, I just crush a lot." At the same time, the Redskins are still called the Redskins. Is this progress?

Though Cosell was a legendary improviser at the microphone, the modern sportscast delivers a volley of graphics, routines, and athletic neologisms that make Cosell's static orations seem almost like a stage presentation. Nearly every SportsCenter broadcast has become a kind of performance art, with anchors competing to produce the showiest verbal slam-dunk and the dopest catchword that will later be tossed around in pickup games nationwide.

Choose your style: There's Kenny Mayne's wry frat-boy antics, Larry Beil's "with authority!" throwdown, or Chris Berman's metacommentary (he imitates other commentators' calls). True, you've got to be really devoted to pick up more than the most obvious tics here; try watching the same highlights read by different anchors to see how each one signifies on what the teleprompter tells him to say. But at base this is a playground aesthetic heavily indebted to the black male styles that came to dominate the NBA in the 1970s: The riffing, the trash talk, the cleverness as a means of competitive display all bespeak a world where street style rules. (By comparison, baseball players last season were reportedly upset by Dan Patrick's trademark "whiff" call, which they found demeaning.) The minute he retires, Bronco loudmouth Shannon Sharpe is sure to join his brother Sterling on ESPN's football announcing team. Pick up ESPN: The Magazine or Sport and catch the same vibe: Unlike gray old Sports Illustrated, these mags are in your face, dawg, in love with playa slang and "edgy" players like Randy Moss.

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