Sideline Blowhards

Illustration by Sean McCabe

Even now, the bowl games are beginning, college basketball will shortly be playing conference games, Omar still wants Manny, Larry Brown has decided to trade all the Knicks, and the professional pig-kickers are headed toward their annual playoff run to the Steroid Bowl. Of course, I will watch. But I wish I didn’t have to listen, especially to all the loudmouths hired to tell me what I can see for myself.

Turn off the sound and watch their hands. They move like wings or flippers—hands that are heavy, tied, or cuffed; hands that are saws or puppets; the Red Hand of Ulster, the Black Hand of Serbia, a handful of dust. Regardless of whether these television personalities have ever actually played a game on the field, reported one in a newspaper, or coached one from a sideline, they must all have gone to the same sports-yak master class in “Hacking, Waving, and Wringing to Show You Really Mean It!” Even as they growl, jeer, hiss, harrumph, and caterwaul, their hands seem out of sync, clutching at distant straws, praying to alien gods, throttling the throats of strangers.

I used to think this was because sportsblabbers, feeling insecure in the pantheon of anchor people and correspondents, measured their own importance the way we measure horses, in hand widths. But it’s been clear at least since Howard Cosell that sportsblabbers consider themselves superior to everybody, including the athletes. After all, weren’t the slam dunk and the end-zone jitterbug all invented for SportsCenter highlight reels, and the two-minute warning for extra commercials? Maybe the real problem is that, deep down, sportsblabbers don’t believe that we believe they’re important. Trying too hard and shouting too much is performance anxiety. TV sports yak is a testosterone seizure so predictable as to make one wonder if the boys protest too much.

Neither the play-by-play announcers nor the studio-bound bloviators can stand to just let us watch the game. And since so many of them are ex-jocks, the gist of their commentary is often how they would have done it better. Joe Morgan on ESPN calls for a grand slam or a suicide squeeze. Billy Packer on CBS forces the ball in to a low-post stiff. Any one of the posse of ex-quarterbacks in the broadcast booth—Phil Simms, Dan Fouts, Steve Young, Joe Theismann—beats a blitz with a bootleg or a draw play. And they repeat themselves into the next inning or quarter, tonguing a sore ego as if offended by the contrary opinion of a coach whose job depends on such decisions. So Terry Bradshaw on Fox NFL Sunday does his lunatic-hick impersonation; tough guy Mike Ditka on Sunday NFL Countdown grunts as though auditioning for The Sopranos; Boomer Esiason and Dan Marino on NFL Today seem not to like each other, Mike Francesa and Chris Russo on YES don’t like anybody (which is reciprocal), and the sportswriters on Around the Horn are so quick to blurt out something stupid you’d think they’d never written a column requiring research and reflection. They all behave like rabid squirrels, as if they’d taken charm lessons from Bill Parcells.

The exception is Pardon the Interruption, where Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon seem to have read other sections of the newspaper besides box scores. They admit their own fan-boy biases, own up to wrongheaded hunches, and don’t take themselves or each other too seriously, probably because they are colleagues at the Washington Post. Otherwise, though, these shows are all noise, fear, loathing, and ersatz urgency. Whether the blabbers contributed to, or were created by, hate radio, Fox News, and the degradation of American political discourse, I can’t say. But they are all so locker-room intemperate and so red-eyed feverish that they seem to want to stub out their resentment on us, as if our ears were ashtrays.

Pardon the Interruption
ESPN. Weekdays, 5:30 p.m.

Sideline Blowhards