ESPN’s SportsCenter is a part of my morning routine. I usually start the day with that old soul Pat Kiernan at NY1, but within a few minutes, the news inevitably starts to feel smothering — too much sadness, frustration and anxiety, too early in the morning. That’s when I switch over to ESPN. It’s a safe space. Sure, I wish they would spend less time on certain story lines, and the production is too slick — too many cameras swooping around anchors who are standing, for no apparent reason, in what looks like a laser-tag arena — but I turn to it, nonetheless. The highlights and scores are conveniently packaged and delivered with a casual chirpiness that is powerfully reassuring. Today is just like yesterday, SportsCenter tells me, which will be just be like tomorrow.
This is all by way of explaining the bewilderment and hurt I felt this morning when, slumped on the couch, I recognized the voice of ESPN columnist Rick Reilly calling the highlights. Reilly, I’m told, was a crack sportswriter once upon a time. His more recent work alternates between weird old-fashioned joke-telling and saccharine human interest (“Matt Steven is blind, but that didn’t stop him from being a hoops hero”). The man has taken up very little psychic space in my life up to now. Yet there I was, scowling as if someone were rubbing a dirty sock in my face. Here is a rough transcription of the conversation that transpired between my wife and me:
Me: Why is Rick Reilly hosting SportsCenter?
Me: Rick Reilly is hosting SportsCenter. Why?
Wife: What’s the matter?
Me: Why are they doing this?
Wife: Doing what?
Me: It’s Rick Reilly. No.
Part of the problem is that Reilly is trying too hard, pitching his voice a little too high and forcing laughs. SportsCenter hosts, above all, should be smooth and confident, but he put me on edge, wondering how he was going to embarrass himself. He also tends to get his references and catchphrases just a little bit wrong. On a fancy pass by Lamar Odom: “Just the kind of stuff coach Wooden hates. I guess it’s a bucket.” Coach Wooden? What? Was he there? And later: “Chris Paul in-bounds to David West. Right back. Give and receive.” I know that Reilly knows that the term of art here is “give and go,” but why is he saying it that way? Why?
I know that SportsCenter shouldn’t be important enough to make me want to paw the air like a disoriented bear and knock the TV off its stand. But that’s just what I — and everyone else, apparently — wanted to do.