I am going to use this column to do something I will never be able to do again -- convey my first impressions of intensive ESPN-watching. Until I was asked to consider taking on this job, I had been only a casual viewer, tuning in mostly for event coverage. Since that day, I have watched more ESPN than is typical of any but the sports-minded unemployed and bedridden.
Before this binge, for instance, I almost never turned on the television during daytime except in times of national crisis. As it happened, on the day I first received a call about this job, it was about 4 p.m. when I put down the phone, turned on the television and tuned in to ESPN. I was not yet equipped with a DVR, so for the next several hours I either watched or listened from another room while I went about other business. My strongest reaction that first afternoon was, "Who are these people and why are they shouting at me?"
It was mid-January, a few days before the NFL conference championships. The first shouting I heard came from a football analyst who had no doubt that the Saints were going to crush the Bears on Sunday. He was so emphatic that the guy he was foretelling the future with said, "Well, I guess there's no need to play the game, Sean. Let's just declare the Saints the winner." This is analysis, I thought, and remembered a favorite saying of the day that had once been posted on the farm stand where I buy tomatoes: "Certainty is the place you stop when you are tired of thinking."
Next up was "Jim Rome is Burning." Jim Rome wasn't exactly yelling at me, but the farm stand quote came to mind again. My viewing was interrupted by a phone call, and when I returned to the living room, two more heads were hollering. It was Jay Mariotti and Woody Paige mixing it up on "Around the Horn" about whether Colts quarterback Peyton Manning was going "to get the monkey off his back." I would be hearing that phrase a lot over the next 2½ weeks, until the Super Bowl was over, and everybody finally agreed that the monkey was indeed off Peyton's back. But on that first day, after watching Mariotti and Paige have a go at the monkey, I got to hear Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon take on the monkey on "Pardon the Interruption." Oh no, not you too, I thought. But Kornheiser and Wilbon calmed down, read some news in a normal tone of voice, discussed the news at varying volume levels, laughed at themselves and each other, and made me laugh as well. It seemed the sports equivalent of getting your news of the world from Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show." I felt better.
Then, whooooosh, up came the roaring red powerball. It was time for the real sports news on "SportsCenter." Who would the anchors be? Before I could figure that out, I heard yelling again. Highlights were being shown, and at first I presumed the audio was from the original announcer getting carried away in the thrill of the moment. But no, it was the as-yet-unidentified anchor, doing some rehearsed yelling. I thought the point of voiceovers was to help you see and appreciate the action, especially if you hadn't seen the game and had no context for the highlight. The yelling, especially during rapid-fire basketball highlights, felt like the aural equivalent of a tall guy jumping up out of his seat and blocking my view of the action at a crucial moment. I imagined viewers in living rooms all over the world shouting, "Sit down and be quiet. We want to see." I felt robbed. One of the great pleasures of watching sports is the communal jaw-dropped moment of quiet that follows a display of spectacular athleticism -- the silent WOW that precedes the roar. These highlights were all roar.
I was close to concluding that my sensibility was too far removed from that of ESPN for me to represent its audience, but I hung in there, as I had been asked to do, and kept watching. I saw "Outside the Lines," developing new information on the long-term effects of multiple concussions on NFL players, and I wished heartily for Bob Ley and his staff to have more airtime. I learned more than a thing or two from analysts and reporters like John Clayton, Chris Mortensen and Mark Schlereth. I got several good laughs a day, most days, out of PTI, along with the news. When I wanted my sports news straight up, I could go, most days, to ESPN.com for ESPNEWS Headlines or watch the non-highlight segments of "SportsCenter."
Still, that first impression has remained. In the past two months, I have heard a lot of yelling, from some but not all of the anchors, from some but not all of the commentators who rotate through "Around the Horn," from Skip Bayless on "Cold Pizza," and from some but not all of the guests who sit across from Skip and allow themselves to get bent out of shape by his absolutism. The yelling anchors sound manic. The yelling commentators sound angry. None of the yellers sounds to me as if he is reacting authentically to something he cares about.
Maybe the vast majority of ESPN's viewers enjoy this ramped-up, in-your-face, I'm-the-show approach to sports talk. Maybe it is not my business as an ombudsman to object to the hollering just because it doesn't suit me. I hope your responses to this column will let me know how far off or close to the mark I am about this, and I will take note, especially about hollered highlights, because after all, it does no serious harm. Neither does hollering about "who do you like."
There is harm, though, when the loud, cocksure approach is applied to certain off-the-field issues. Take Michael Vick's water bottle. In mid-January, when the Falcons quarterback surrendered a water bottle with a secret compartment to security officials at Miami International Airport, a police report said that the bottle's compartment contained residue of something that smelled like marijuana. Lab tests would be conducted within a few days' time, but suspending judgment till the evidence is in does not suit the formats of ESPN's afternoon opinion shows, which require judgment to be passed on 10 or more topics a day. The talkers need material, so Vick's water bottle was rushed straight to judgment within hours of the first sketchy wire service report. He was not only presumed guilty but stridently pronounced "stupid" for trying to sneak anything past airport security by nine different commentators on four different shows within the two-hour period from Jim Rome to the end of PTI. A few commentators like Michael Wilbon hedged their bets with an "if" clause, as in "If Michael Vick did this, then ...," but I suspect most viewers quickly forget the "if."
When lab tests exonerated Vick of any wrongdoing within a week, I did not hear any apologies. In late March, when Vick addressed the topic publicly for the first time since the airport incident, he said he used the bottle's secret compartment to stash jewelry when he traveled. That also went straight from the wires to the afternoon opinion shows for another round of loud hooting derision. What I would like to have known all along was where one gets such a water bottle -- in a head shop or on hideyourjewels.com?
It is, in my opinion, Vick's misfortune to have become a running ESPN story line, which too often means a designated caricature who -- like Terrell Owens or Pete Rose or the Bengal of the day -- is considered open game for character assassination. I am as skeptical as anyone about what Rose has to say about his gambling, but I still cringed when Bayless pronounced him "corrupt to the core" on "1st and 10."
Other cringe moments: The day news broke that a team doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers was among those who made purchases of testosterone and human growth hormone from an online pharmaceutical firm whose owners had been indicted by a grand jury for illegal distribution of prescription drugs. Again, within hours of the breaking news, Mariotti, on "Around the Horn," shouted: "What kind of doctor buys drugs on the black market?" Not Dr. Richard Ryzde, whose purchase of drugs, which he claims were for geriatric patients in his private practice, were entirely legal, not black market, however much they may raise suspicions about steroid use in the NFL. I hope ESPN's reporters are trying to find out what Dr. Ryzde did with the $150,000 worth of hormones he purchased online with his credit card. Fans need suspicions about steroid use in the NFL confirmed or allayed by investigation, not opinion.
On "1st and 10," on March 1, Bayless' assertion that 50-75 percent of NFL players use human growth hormone made his guest, former Giants (now Dolphins) kicker Jay Feely, so mad that he fired back, "That's ridiculous. It's dangerous for you to make that claim." If one is going to speculate on limited evidence about athletes' steroid use, better to do it as Chuck Klosterman did in his thoughtful, provocative opinion piece, "Why We Look The Other Way," published in the March 26 issue of ESPN The Magazine and posted on ESPN.com's Page 2. Klosterman lays down his evidence, his lack of it, his premises and judgments, and also his open questions about steroid use in the NFL, concluding, "It may be time to rethink some of this stuff." Maybe he wrote that farm stand saying of the day.
It's nor fair or realistic to ask on-air opinionators to be as informed or measured in their off-the-cuff responses to breaking news, often indistinguishable from breaking rumor, as a magazine writer can be on his longer leash. But I think it is fair to ask a greater degree of humility and suspended judgment than is often heard on air. And I think it is fair to ask producers to encourage less ill-informed vehemence. On the day news broke of a domestic violence claim against the Sacramento Kings' Ron Artest, the incident was placed before the "Around the Horn" jury. In a moderate tone of voice, Mariotti called it "a sad story." Michael Smith, not uncharacteristically, said, "We don't have enough evidence to pass judgment." The usually voluble Paige said quietly, "Artest will always test you. It's time for him to get his life in gear." I was stunned by the across-the-board reasonableness. Tony Reali, the above-the-fray moderator and scorekeeper for "the sport of competitive banter," leaned back and awarded no points. The message seemed clear. Too much sweet reason does not suit the format.
I could go on, but I think I've made my point. Besides, my subjective impression is that the over-the-top shouted certainty of opinion has toned down a bit since I began my binge viewing in mid-January. Maybe the lead-up to the Super Bowl is the peak of the yelling season. Or maybe I have just gotten used to it. I hope not.
One reassuring sign: On "Around the Horn" Wednesday, the format yielded to the seriousness of the topic -- the dismissal of all charges against the three Duke lacrosse players on the grounds of no credible evidence. The point-giving and horn-sounding gimmicks were suspended for the first five minutes of the show while Tony Reali listened to four sportswriters -- Bill Plaschke, Mariotti, Paige and Jackie MacMullan -- discuss the irreparable harm done to three innocent young men by both an overzealous prosecutor and a media rush to judgment. They seemed genuinely sobered by an awareness of the damage that can follow when opinion runs too far ahead of fact.
As I gather first impressions, I needed that lesson, too.