I worry about the sports world we are leaving to our children.
No, this is not one of those rants about how things were simpler back in the day when the athletes were good guys and the sun was always shining on them. For starters, no matter what era you call childhood, the myths about it just aren’t true.
Joe DiMaggio would have been torn apart by the modern media as an insecure, insular and overly proud man. Ted Williams was torn apart by the media back then but at least nobody had film of him spitting at the fans to run on ESPN over and over. Also, you have to wonder if Satchel Paige might have disrupted Joltin’ Joe’s 56-game hit streak or put an 0-for-5 on Ted Williams to knock him back down to .399.
Maybe you think of the '60s as an innocent sports era but then you have to explain “Ball Four.” During the '70s Doc Ellis pitched a no-hitter while on LSD and confessed he thought he was pitching to a team of large, white rabbits. The Steel Curtain era Pittsburgh Steelers were merely the first football team to have an obsession with steroids and in the '80s you had base runners sliding headfirst so as not to disturb the cocaine in their back pocket.
So these times are not the end of the innocence but they are different for one specific reason. The way we talk about sports is different and it’s different because of talk radio.
Few who watched will deny that the U.S. victory over Brazil in the women’s World Cup quarterfinals was as stirring a sporting event as we have seen in a long time. The late comeback against tough odds was exactly the kind of magic that caused so many of us to become sports fans in the first place.
Yet, those tuned in to ESPN radio the next day were treated to a lengthy debate about the wisdom of Christian Lopez, who returned the ball that was Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit instead of auctioning it off to the highest bidder. Some seemed to think Lopez was some kind of fool for giving the ball back.
There was debate on the player’s skipping out on baseball's all-star game and more debate about the NFL lockout. When the World Cup was mentioned it was not to discuss the wonder of a game that good but to debate the merits of ending a game on penalty kicks.
What a dreary sporting life the folks who program and execute talk radio must have. The sports world unfolds for them, not as a series of unscripted, dramatic events but as a series of talking points waiting to be dissected.
It makes you wonder how they might have handled some of the great moments of the past.
Wilt Chamberlain scores 100. Does he pass enough?
Carlton Fisk waves his Game 6 homer fair. Should the Reds be upset? Will they deliver a message in Game 7?
Alydar can't catch Affirmed at the end of the Belmont. Why doesn't this horse have the guts to win the big one?
To be fair to ESPN, SportsCenter was crammed with reverential retrospective of the U.S. win. There was no doubt the people putting together the Sunday night program, which is replayed all of Monday morning, knew they had witnessed magic and were intent on making sure everyone else knew it, too.
Apparently, their radio people didn’t watch.
This may not seem an important thing and maybe it isn’t but it’s depressing to see sports dragged in this direction. More and more our sports world is becoming less about what happened and more about how Skip Bayless (who does a TV version of talk radio) reacts to what is happening. This is regrettable, not simply because Bayless’ debate style can be likened to that of a grumpy fourth-grader, but because it sucks the joy from the events we watch and cheapens our sporting dialogue.
There is an easy comparison.
Few will argue that our political conversation is coarser and, in some ways, simpler than it was before Rush Limbaugh became a national name. This is not a political point, merely an observation that Limbaugh begets Keith Olbermann and neither is engaged in what one would call reasoned debate. If their particular viewpoints were contained to their particular shows (although Olbermann no longer has one) it would be one thing but, inevitably, their words bleed into the mainstream of political thought.
So it is with sports talk radio, which many people in this state were introduced to by Arnold Dean on WTIC-AM. Now Arnold Dean is simply the nicest man you will ever encounter and so his show was more of a forum than a soapbox. He was not, what we would call today, a radio personality. UConn fans may recall fondly his performance on the night UConn beat Duke to win it’s first men’s basketball national championship. A caller asked Dean who the Huskies had coming in next year. Dean refused to answer the question and told the fan he should savor the moment instead of turning the page.
These days, memorable events are not savored on radio but autopsied. This is what we are passing along. We are passing along a world where the story of sports is written in sparse, lean prose instead of poetry.
Those who program talk radio will say, in their bottom line way, look at the ratings. Colin Cowherd says this all the time on his radio show and he has a point, even if it is a limited one. But the secret about radio ratings (this goes for book sales, too) is that it's possible to get great ratings with a niche audience.
This is why WTIC-AM can survive despite a daytime lineup that is remarkably out of step with a state that has elected a Democratic governor, legislature, five Democratic members of the House of Representatives, a Democratic Senator and Joe Lieberman. As long as a chunk of devoted Republican listeners tune in, their ratings will be fine. (Also, it seems to be the only radio station that comes in on Route 44 near the turn for Coventry High School.)
The same with sports talk radio.
The audience who wants to break down the Steelers depth chart instead of listening to yet another Steve Miller song is large enough to guarantee ratings.
But I pity these people in their little world of talking points and I hope their perspective doesn’t spill out and poison us all. I don't want my kids witnessing the next great moment in sports only to wonder, seconds later... What will the U.S. team look like in 2015?