An Unpardoned Interruption

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Jack Shafer exposes ESPN's suspension of Tony Kornheiser for what it is-- a luke-warm cup of meh-sauce. Kornheiser, for the record, said the following of reporter Hannah Storm on his local radio show:

Hannah Storm in a horrifying, horrifying outfit today. She's got on red go-go boots and a catholic school plaid skirt ... way too short for somebody in her 40s or maybe early 50s by now. ... She's got on her typically very, very tight shirt. She looks like she has sausage casing wrapping around her upper body. ... I know she's very good, and I'm not supposed to be critical of ESPN people, so I won't ... but Hannah Storm ... come on now! Stop! What are you doing? ... She's what I would call a Holden Caulfield fantasy at this point.

Sports commentators regularly mock the fashion choices of male athletes, telecasters and coaches. But this isn't the same as going after Bill Belichick for his grey hoodies, because Bill Belichick doesn't live in world where constant, intense, unremitting physical evaluation is the norm. This is doubly true of television "journalism." I deeply suspect that if  Kornheiser were subject to the sort of aesthetic standard that will dog Hannah Storm for the rest of her working days, he would not have a career right now.

Leaving that aside, there is something unserious about ESPN's pearl-clutching given Kornheiser's own history, and given ESPN's history, all documented by Shafer:

What's probably appalled ESPN is Kornheiser's literary reference about Storm being "a Holden Caulfield fantasy at this point," a reference that probably went over the heads of 99 percent of his listeners. Is Kornheiser referring to Chapter 13 of The Catcher in the Rye, in which Caulfield hires a prostitute but makes the procurer promise not to send him "any old bag"?

I dunno, but if the network is worried that sex talk will damages its reputation, it's sending in its cavalry a little late. See this allegation of sexual harassment at ESPN, or this blowup, or this one, or this firing of a baseball analyst for having an affair with a young production assistant.

Much--but not all--of sports radio relies on frat-boy humor to carry the freight between serious discussions about teams, games, and players. If Kornheiser's TV network bosses are genuinely upset about what their employee said about another employee on the radio, they should fire him. But they won't fire him, because they aren't actually upset. The ESPN brass is punishing Kornheiser for being Kornheiser when they should be punishing themselves for running their network like a high-school locker room.

When ESPN frees Kornheiser from the penalty box--as it surely will soon--I'd like to see it prove its sincerity by stuffing one of the network's executives in the box for a time-out of his own.

Probably not. This is PR intent to stave off a withering statement from NOW, or potential pickets outside the ESPN Zone. It'll be forgotten in a couple weeks.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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