Saturday, July 14, 2007

After Sports Center -- Competition Sudoku!

The attempt and not the deed, confounds us. ~ William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Oh, lawsey, lawsey, lawsey, what has become of ESPN?

I've watched ESPN since it's inception. I enjoyed Australian Rules Football, demolition derby, track meets, guys in kilts tossing telephone poles, and all the other weird and wonderful sports that were liable to turn up. ESPN actually took ABC's Wide World of Sports and turned it into a 24-hour-a-day festival of the thrill of victory and agony of defeat.

But those days are gone.

It started really when things like Aussie Rules Football vanished. Why, I'll never know. The Australian game is a whirlwind, roughneck combination of rugby, soccer, and a gang fight. But, for some reason, ESPN decided to eliminate it years ago. Maybe it was the goal judges wearing those white coats and fedoras; perhaps the thought was that they were too cultural.

Once they had all manner of motorsports. True, they've finally gotten NASCAR back, at a time when stock car racing is becoming more and more non-competitive. Perhaps they got it back because coverage is so much easier now. Show the Hendricks cars and whoever might have snuck up front; that's so much easier than trying to find where the actual racing is happening on the trak.

Then they started doing the drama thing, producing docudrama tripe about Pete Rose, Dale Earnhardt, and now the New York Yankees. And we won't even mention the "Desperate Football Players" series.

Then came the poker tournaments and billiards. To some extent, this hearkened back to the good old oddball days. But, after a while, the poker tournaments consisted mostly of building up some smartmouth to get the audience rooting against the jerk. Billiards, after brief flings with straight pool and eight ball, are now only nine-ball, and women's nine-ball at that, which, frankly, is pretty damn dull.

But at least they have some resemblance to sport.

Somehow, the folks at ESPN decided that the National Spelling Bee fell into their purview. One would think that Public Television would be a more likely venue, but ESPN got it and handed Mike Green and Mike Golic, of Mike and Mike in the Morning to handle the "play-by-play" duties. Now I happen to like the two Mikes, but I dread to think of what their coverage must have been like. I didn't watch it because, despite being an absolute spelling nazi, I'd find watching my lawn grow -- at night -- more exciting than watching some kid spell acetylcholinesterase.

As if that wasn't bad enough, we were recently treated to the Hot Dog Eating contest. Now, I'm an immigrant and my parents, coming over in 1949 from post-war Europe instilled a horror of wasting food in me. Watching people stuff pounds of food in their maws, in some cases only to upchuck it, does not strike me as "entertainment" or "sports." And they showed it about a dozen times.

But now they have gone too far. This very afternoon, after watching the Rolex GT race in Iowa (which is the kind of thing that should be on ESPN), I was scanning the on-screen program guide when I came to the ESPNs. One of them, ESPN or ESPN2 was showing the ... Lord, I don't know if I can even type this...They were showing the Rock, Paper, Scissors Championship.

I swear that this is true. I couldn't make up something like this.

With a mixture of curiosity and outright fear that this might be true, I switched over to the channel. There on the screen I saw a man and a woman staring intently at one another, when suddenly they slapped their fists into their palms and extended their hands toward one another. A guy standing between them screamed, "Paper! Paper! Tie!"

That was as much as I could stand.

Years ago, there was a Tank McNamara cartoon, in which the likable ex-football player cum broadcaster had gotten a gig with ESPN to cover the National Egg Toss Championship. In the last panel, Tank, who is thrilled with his "big-time" assignment, looks out and says, "The thrill of victory and the agony of broken eggs."

It doesn't seem so funny any more.

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