The Reluctant Ballfan

Because of yesterday's Padres loss and Rockies win, tonight marks the beginning of the 2007 major league baseball playoffs, and this will be the second straight year that my team–the Atlanta Braves–won't be playing. Which hurts a little. There's such a warm feeling of inclusion when your team makes the playoffs. Day-in, day-out, the sports news is cluttered with games; but come playoff time, the focus narrows, and the spotlight is on the players you live and die for. It feels like getting a promotion at work–added stress included. So I guess with the Braves out again, I can relax and enjoy the next few weeks of baseball, without spending whole days in a state of low-grade anxiety. (At least there's some compensation.)



I've been a sports fan most of my life, with the exception of a couple of years when I was a high school punk and feigning indifference to bourgeois diversions. (And even then, I checked the box scores every day during baseball season to see how the Braves were doing…something my artsy high school girlfriend thought was kind of cute.) Lately though, I've been having trouble maintaining the same unconditional enthusiasm for sports, be they on the professional or semi-professional (a.k.a. college) level. My problem isn't with steroids, domestic violence, skyrocketing salaries or criminal behavior. It's with the delivery system.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post in which I mentioned my general irritation with ESPN, but this time of year, when football and baseball intersect, it's hard to avoid the worldwide leader. And just like every other media outlet that attempts 24-hour coverage, ESPN–along with network studio shows, sports talk radio, and nearly every sports blog that isn't Deadspin-approved–tries so hard to fill too much airtime that they lose all sense of proportion.

Last week, while working late, I kept the TV on after Monday Night Football and watched about an hour of the Sportscenter that followed. A good half-hour of that broadcast was taken up by post-game analysis. Was that because the game was incredibly exciting? No. Because it featured two top-tier teams who might meet again in the postseason? Absolutely not. Because it was the only football game on TV that night? Bingo.

Part of that excessive coverage included lengthy excerpts of the teams' post-game press conferences, presented live. Now, broadcasting an entire live press conference makes some sense, at least for completists. But dropping in for five to ten minutes? What's the point? The network has no idea what questions the press pool is going to ask, or if the coach or quarterback will say anything other than what they say every week. Wouldn't it make more sense to record the conference, and then excerpt the highlights? But I know why ESPN does it–and it relates to something else about sports broadcasting that's thoroughly irritating.

Earlier that Monday, I went looking on-line for footage of the Padres' Milton Bradley's season-ending umpire altercation, and since it wasn't on YouTube yet, I braved the MLB site (which offers next to nothing for free) and then the ESPN site, where I could watch a clip of one of the network's commentators talking about Bradley, but not footage of the incident itself. If I'd been willing to turn on my TV and wait, I could've seen Bradley get slammed to the turf over and over again on ESPN's cablecast. But the on-line rights apparently belonged to MLB–"newsworthiness" defense be damned. Similarly, I read recently that the NFL is trying to limit the amount of locker room coverage that local news outlets can provide, on TV and on-line. After all, what's the point of the NFL having its own 24-hour cable network if some Miami station can put Trent Green's thoughts on last week's Dolphin loss up on their website?

So why does ESPN devote so much airtime to a relatively meaningless early-season matchup between the woeful New Orleans Saints and the resurgent (I hope) Tennessee Titans? Because they paid a boatload for the rights, and they're going to squeeze every last drop of revenue out of them.

There's always been an element of compromised integrity when it comes to sports broadcasting. Sports is more entertainment than news, so it's unreasonable to expect completely unbiased coverage of an event that a network owns, any more than I'd expect a movie theater to post negative reviews of the films they've booked that week. Still, the sheer quantity of sports-jabber has become ridiculous and embarrassing, even for a sports fan like myself. Flip past any sports-talk station on the radio, and note how the hosts can fill a full 10-minute segment of airtime with absolutely nothing, making the same point over and over, just with different syntax (and a lot of pregnant pauses).

Why does any of this matter? Because when sports journalism sucks, it reflects badly on people who like sports. Just this past week, movie columnist Jeffrey Wells wrote: "To be a hard-core sports buff you need to be inherently conservative on some deep-down level. By this I mean naturally deferential to 'order.' Sport happens in a definable, quantifiable world of rules and referees and umpires and end zones and teams guided by coaches and managers. But there's an unruly world of lonely individualism out there (and 'in' there), and it's a lot wilder and weirder and scarier than anything encountered on a soccer, football or baseball field. Just ask Albert Einstein. Sport-watching and following (betting, handicapping) is a place that fans tend to live inside of. It's a kind of haven or cathedral...a floating monastery. My experience is that sport fans are obviously literate but aren't...how to say it?...burningly passionate about communing with worlds that exist outside their safety zone. Walk into any sports bar in the country and you can feel that sports-fan vibe–friendly and alert, amiable and ordered, but less learned, studied and complex than the one you get when you walk into the Harvard Club on West 44th."

Now, as with most of what Wells writes, about half of the above is horseshit. But also as with with most of what Wells writes, there's a lot of truth to it too. Athletic success does require a certain procedural rigor, which means professional athletes tend to lean conservative, just out of habit. And while "conservative" doesn't equal "dumb," the blindered approach of athletes–and even a lot of hardcore sports nuts–can be dangerous. For one thing, the amount of money spent on and attention paid to sports is fairly obscene, especially on the college level, where athletic programs gobble up resources that could go to academics. When I watch a college football game, I get that same feeling I get when I eat factory-processed chicken. It tastes delicious, but I know every bite is promoting waste and social inequity.

And the way the games are broadcast doesn't help the perception. Between the graphics, the sound-effects, and the inarticulate pseudo-expertise, watching the average sports broadcast is like watching three hours of cable news. Sports reporting has such a grand tradition, but that's not the tradition TV aspires to. Most networks don't cover these games like great dramas, populated by complex characters and informed by a rich history. They cover them like political campaigns, with instant polls and soundbites and conventional wisdom that rarely changes, no matter what the facts prove.

I have high hopes that TBS' foray into playoff baseball coverage will be better, because I've always enjoyed the relatively understated, casual, even poetic approach the network has taken with Braves baseball over the years. Yesterday's game, which marked Craig Biggio's last appearance as a Houston Astro and announcer Skip Caray's final broadcast on TBS, was as emotional as sports can be at its best, and not a bit of it was oversold.

But it was owned. And because it wasn't owned by ESPN, don't expect to hear much more about what happened besides the few minutes devoted to the game on Baseball Tonight. And don't even thnk about reproducing the pictures and descriptions yourself–not without express written consent.

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