Entertainment January/February 2011

The Wild World of Sports

In SportsCenter, ESPN’s increasingly arcane and anarchic highlights program, the fan still finds solace—even order—in chaos.
Eddie Guy

“What happened here, Merril?”

John Buccigross and Merril Hoge are standing—like angels, like Gandalfs, like members of the Jedi High Council—in front of the ESPN Touchscreen (sponsored by Ford Edge).

They are watching a football game. To be precise, they are watching the Dallas Cowboys play the Minnesota Vikings. To be even more precise, they are watching Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo get flattened by Jared Allen, the Vikings’ defensive end. Buccigross, the anchorman, wags his sheaf of notes; Hoge, the analyst, the former pro, jabs at the screen. Fine men, American men, besuited and affably booming: the camera fawns upon them, tilting upward for the full-length shot.

Here at the Ford Edge Touchscreen, judgment is passed; here the contested moment is isolated, unpacked, with replays and freeze-frames and zoom-ins and pulsing infrared scans. Huge images fulminate. Look: there’s Romo onscreen, throwing the football. And there’s Allen, bursting unobstructed toward him through the Cowboys’ line. What happened here, Merril? “Left tackle doesn’t hear the snap count,” admonishes Hoge. “Lookin’ down at the ball, doesn’t react to the outside quick enough.” Close-up of Romo post-tackle, post–­Jared Allen, seated on the turf, broadcasting grievance and puzzlement through the bars of his helmet. “And here’s Tony Romo almost like, ‘C’mon!’” says Hoge. Elaborates Buccigross: “‘What the— ?’”

Video: James Parker comments on footage of malfunctioning touch screens and overzealous soccer announcers.

And so this is SportsCenter. And so this is me, an Englishman, watching Sports­Center, trying to get my Anglo head in the game. A crash course, part of my long-range prep for Super Bowl XLV. Am I at the center of sports? I think so. I think this may be the very navel of the sportiverse. Yankees fans are throwing beer at Cliff Lee’s wife. Mathias Kiwanuka has a herniated disc. Reggie Bush has a fractured fibula. SportsCenter is formatted like a cable news show: the screen is jammed with data, a sidebar trailing upcoming stories, a news ticker crawling along the bottom. And talkety-­talkety-talk, hot air, roaring afterburners of commentary. The Cowboys have lost to the Vikings. Now they’re one and four: what’s the reading on the Panic Meter? “It’s off the charts!” says Antonio Pierce. “It’s off the charts, ladies and gentlemen!” The NFL is considering suspensions for helmet-to-helmet hits: fines don’t seem to be working. The Cowboys have lost to the Giants. Now they’re one and five. Tony Romo has a fractured clavicle. Cut to the grave, inflamed face of Cowboys coach Wade Phillips. (“So many questions for a coach whose seat just got a whole lot hotter!”)

I join the action well into the football season. No doubt SportsCenter has a different emphasis, or a different flavor, in the middle of the Olympics, say. But football is the SportsCenter sweet spot—the sport that most lends itself, that is, to the high SportsCenter style. What violence, and what a lot of rules! Terrible outbreaks and collisions hovered over by an unstinting pedantry: good calls, bad calls, disputed calls, coaches tearing off their headsets in disgust. Knots and pits of struggle from which the ball suddenly zooms out like a flare, like a line of poetry. The game offers bottomless arcana: hidden yardage, anyone? And it moves in talk-friendly spasms, brief throes halted by the whistle or the prone body. Here comes Michael Boley, marauding Giants linebacker, in slow motion—torso colossally rolling, a figure of dreadful purpose enlarging and clarifying itself with every stride. Good God, he’s heading straight for Tony Romo. Where are the Cowboys? Where is Chris Gronkowski, the rookie fullback who should be Romo’s protector in this game? “He just blows his assignment,” says Tim Hasselbeck, amazed and appalled, at the Ford Edge Touchscreen. “Missed assignment!”

Boley steams in. Romo goes down. And—pop!—there goes his clavicle. “When he hit the ground,” says Boley after the game, “I heard him let out a little scream.”

SportsCenter never stops, or almost never. Since its debut in 1979, more than 30,000 unique episodes have aired. It runs through the day, it loops, it repeats, it packs the schedule. It is both the brain and the spine of ESPN: from out of this sports sensorium, with its loud experts and insane whooshing graphics and SUV-commercial heavy-metal Muzak, come the narratives, the themes and memes, that keep the station buzzing. And not just the station: SportsCenter, by dint of rolling coverage and nonstop yakking, remains the grand generator of the American sports conversation. The columnists, the blogging masses, the bar-stool bores, the snapping canids of talk radio—all are tingling with info-rays beamed in from planet SportsCenter. The Cowboys have lost to the Jaguars. Now they’re one and six. So stoke the fires of punditry, damn it, rile up the SportsNation. Can Wade Phillips keep his job? Should Cowboys owner Jerry Jones get rid of him? The story rotates, gaining strength hour by hour. Behold Phillips now under the merciless eye of SportsCenter: indignity on the sidelines, the white hair, the flush of failure in the face. He resembles a disgraced archbishop. (On November 8, Phillips was finally fired.)

Presented by

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor

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