Thursday, August 16, 2007

For Better and for Worse, Sports Reporters Invade ESPN

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

A well-written sports column is one of my favorite things. There is something about the sports world that lends itself to essays that make you laugh, think and/or consider important issues. If a columnist can be insightful and funny at the same time, he or she can be sure that I will be a loyal reader.

I recently exchanged emails with a friend of mine who was complaining about how shallow and unreasoned he found sportswriters to be, and I made the point that it wasn’t always like that. I explained to my friend that when I was in college in the Boston area in the mid-1980s, the Boston Globe boasted an impressive roster of reporters and columnists, including Peter Gammons, Bob Ryan, Will McDonough and my favorite at the time, Leigh Montville. I used to look forward to the sports section the way some people await the latest Harry Potter novel.

I did have to admit, however, that the art of writing sports has taken a beating in recent years. A big part of it, I believe, is the explosion of opportunities for sports reporters and columnists to go on various ESPN shows where they are generally rewarded for their outrageousness and volume rather than any kind of thoughtful analysis. Norman Chad, one of the biggest offenders in this regard, wrote a column in the Washington Post on August 13 that essentially made this very argument. He notes that while going on television used to be a side diversion for sportswriters, it’s now an integral part of their career arcs.

While it’s great if newspapers can influence sports television broadcasting, it certainly is not promising if the culture of television is taking over sports writing. It got me thinking about the rash of sportswriter-driven programming on ESPN, because while I certainly would be in favor of an improvement in the standards of sports writing, not all of the shows are bad.

As Chad notes, the patient zero of the sportswriters-on-television-phenomenon is the Sunday morning staple “The Sports Reporters,” which was hosted by Dick Schaap from the show’s inception in 1988 to his untimely death in 2001. The concept of the show was simple: Consummate journalist Schaap sat on a set with three sportswriters and discussed the sports events of the day. The core group of journalists included a pre-“Tuesdays With Morrie” Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press, Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe, Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News (with a brief detour to New York Newsday) and Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser of the Washington Post. Each show ended with the reporters giving “parting shots,” which were essentially one-minute oral columns. While none of these journalists were shrinking violets, under Schaap’s leadership, the discourse was generally smart and often funny, and the parting shots generally exhibited the best qualities of a good sports column. Until a few years ago, “The Sports Reporters” was must viewing for me, a Sunday morning ritual that my wife knew was sacrosanct.

ESPN anchor John Saunders took over the moderator’s chair after Schaap passed away, and while I like Saunders as a broadcaster, the show suffered a bit from the loss of Schaap, who was a longtime print sports reporter (that’s what the show is named for, right?). And while Lupica, Ryan and Albom continue to appear on the show, they are often surrounded by sports anchors better known for their work on television. It’s still a good show, and the parting shots still often resonate, but it’s no longer appointment television. Whether that is because the show has changed a lot, or because ESPN, thanks to the success of “The Sports Reporters,” is now inundated with similar programming, I can’t say for sure.

If “The Sports Reporters” laid the foundation for writer-driven sports broadcasting, the catalyst for the explosion of such shows was “Pardon the Interruption” (or “PTI,” as it is better known in the sports world). While clearly a sports show, “PTI” (which airs daily on ESPN at 5:30 p.m.) took things a step further, pairing Kornheiser and Wilbon, the two Washington Post reporters, in what was described as a television version of their real-life relationship. They are two friends with different backgrounds -- Kornheiser is a fiftysomething Jewish guy from New York, who goes to bed early and hates to travel; Wilbon is a fortysomething black guy from Chicago, who spends more time traveling to sports events than staying at home in Washington -- that loved to good naturedly argue sports. The two hosts run down the sports topics of the day, which are laid out Web-style on a list on the side of the screen. There are special segments and, often, a five-minute interview is featured in the middle of the show.

Kornheiser is loud, certainly as interested in entertaining through the antics of his on-screen persona as he is making cogent points about sports issues. And while Wilbon is more sedate and less gimmicky, he is not averse to taking extreme positions to get a rise out of Kornheiser and, presumably, the audience. (It is Kornheiser that wears the crazy outfits during special segments, whether it’s the swami hat for a crystal ball feature or the police hat when they play “Good Cop, Bad Cop.”)

“PTI” is fun to watch, despite the histrionics, for one simple reason: It’s enjoyable to hang out for a half hour with Kornheiser and Wilbon. Despite the shtick, they both obviously know their sports, and they are masters at the art of combining insight and humor (which, as I said, is the key to my sports heart). Most of all, it’s the clear affection, rapport, history and chemistry that these two guys share that makes the show special. When they make fun of each other (as they always do), it is obvious that not only is it all in good fun, but it’s the exact behavior they would exhibit if they were sitting in a diner rather than on the television set. “PTI” is not the product of a network executive randomly suggesting two people to host a show together and hoping they get along. Rather, the program is about an interesting relationship that already exists.

(A whole column could be written on the racial aspect of “PTI,” how there is something heartening about a black guy and a white guy sharing a genuine relationship on the air, and how they treat race in their interactions. For the purposes of this article, let’s just say that in its subtle lead-by-example way, watching “PTI” probably does more for race relations in this country than any “very special” episode of a television show or Oscar-bait film.)

In the wake of the success of “PTI” and “The Sports Reporters,” sportswriter-driven shows started popping up on ESPN, either as stand-alone enterprises or as sections of other shows. One of the first to come out was “PTI”’s lead in, “Around the Horn.” The show isn’t just not worthy of its forefathers, it is unwatchable. “Around the Horn” features four sports writers and an insipid host yelling and screaming, but saying nothing, and certainly not being themselves (or at least, I desperately hope these guys are putting on an act). The show was originally conceived as “Sports Reporters” meets a game show (like a sports “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”), where four journalists, one from each of the four sections of the country, argue about sports, with the loud and abrasive host, Max Kellerman, assigning points to the participants when they make good points. The reporter with the lowest point total at each commercial break is booted off.

Soon after the show began, the four-region format was abandoned, and Kellerman left to host his own show elsewhere. He was replaced by the even-more-annoying Tony Reali, the “stat guy” from “PTI” who kept score on some of the games on that program. The fact that Reali has remained on “PTI” while hosting “Around the Horn,” and the fact that he is clearly treated as a level below Wilbon and Kornheiser, is actually a perfect statement on the quality of the two shows.

While some otherwise insightful reporters, like Ryan and Jackie MacMullan of the Boston Globe, appear on “Around the Horn,” they are drowned out by writers who are willing to yell and scream and behave like idiots in the interest of getting some television time. Frequent guests include a decent writer like Chicago Sun-Times reporter Jay Mariotti, who on this show becomes a raving, barking lunatic, and Woody Paige of the Denver Post, who symbolizes the very worst of sportswriters appearing on television. Paige tries so hard to be outrageous and entertaining that he is generally neither. He achieves a level of obnoxiousness that is usually reserved for late night local cable television used car lot commercials, and he never has an interesting or insightful sports point to make. If it wasn’t for the existence of Skip Bayless on ESPN, Paige would be the most useless sports reporter on television. I don’t know how anyone could stand to watch him for more than 15 seconds without reaching for the remote control and a bottle of Tylenol. Same goes for “Around the Horn.”

“Around the Horn” is a scream-fest. It is a living, breathing symbol of all that is wrong with the sportswriters-on-television trend. There is no real discussion. There is no discourse. There is nothing that makes you think, and certainly nothing to make you laugh. It’s four screaming idiots trying to jam points into ten-second windows, while an even bigger idiot makes even more insipid points while moderating the show. Reali is the cherry on the top of this crap sundae. Putting a guy who lacks any insight and has no journalistic credentials in the moderator’s chair is like handing the keys to an insane asylum to a bipolar schizophrenic. No good can come from it. And no good comes from watching “Around the Horn.”

While I enjoy “The Sports Reporters” and “PTI,” I can’t help wonder if 10 years from now I’ll be blaming them for the downfall of sports writing in newspapers. Then again, I wonder if 10 years from now there will even be printed newspapers for writers to write in (after all, at this moment, you are reading this online). I guess the rule is to enjoy sportswriters on television when they bring their skills to a new medium, like on “PTI” and “The Sports Reporters,” and avoid them like the plague when they allow television to take over their values as reporters, as we see in “Around the Horn.” Remember, to paraphrase the surgeon general, exposure to Woody Paige can be hazardous to your health.