“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.)

Then there’s Brett Favre. I watched SportsCenter for weeks and the whole damn thing was about Brett Favre. Brett Favre has injured his ankle. Brett Favre will be interviewed by NFL investigators over inappropriate text and photo messages sent to a Jets game-day hostess in 2008. The silvery and brutal-eyed Vikings quarterback, like LeBron James, is one of ESPN’s anointed: a complex, vigorous athlete/celebrity who has penetrated the national mind. Spumes of gossip, even scandal, trail after him. Brett Favre will not practice today, although he is no longer wearing a protective boot. Will he start the game on Sunday, against the Patriots, and so continue his 291-game “Iron Man” streak? Says Dr. Michael Kaplan: “They’ll probably need to inject in and about the ankle with a long-acting anesthetic.” Brett Favre is working with Vikings equipment staff on a high-top cleated shoe in a size 15, one size larger than he normally wears, to permit the installation of orthotics. “I’ve always had a knack for healing,” says Brett Favre. This Just In: Vikings coach Brad Childress is leaning toward having Tarvaris Jackson start on Sunday against the Patriots, instead of Brett Favre. Our NFL Insider Adam Schefter joins us now for more. Adam, what can you add to this story? (Answer: absolutely nothing.)

Handsome SportsCenter anchor John Anderson has endeared himself to the nation as co-host of ABC’s absurdist obstacle-course show Wipeout. I had not appreciated, prior to my immersion in Sports­Center, the extent to which Wipeout’s bantering and meaty-voiced commentary style is a dead-on parody of ESPN. The pet names, the in-jokes, the badinage, the strange allusions … Steelers linebacker James Harrison leapfrogs a diving Dolphins player, narrowly escaping castration-by-helmet, and John Buccigross says “Wheee! Giving the undercarriage a bit of how’s-your-father.” It doesn’t exactly make sense—but it makes SportsCenter sense. Here language ricochets around the event, pings off it, half insight, half irrelevance.

Part of our pan-cultural slide into irony and soul-death? The SportsCenter anchors convey shrewdness and omniscience; they are hip, in a sense; they enjoy wordplay. Watching Kobe Bryant do his thing, snatching cool fistfuls of points from the air above the Sacramento Kings’ heads, Neil Everett somehow weaves in a conceit involving NBC’s The Office: “It’s Kobe Bryant’s office, wherever he is! And by the way, you think Schrute will take over from Michael Scott, in The Office? … How about Pau Gasol—if you watch The Office—is he the Big Tuna?” Later in the same show, when Brad Childress explains his controversial release of wide receiver Randy Moss as being due to a “programmatic non-fit,” Stan Verrett gleefully homes in on this new addition to the “pro football lexicon”: “You know, that might work for relationships. ‘It’s not that I don’t like you. It’s just that we’re a programmatic non-fit.’” There is passion, crude passion, on SportsCenter. But it’s sports-nut passion— hectoring, upbraiding, knowing it all. It’s Todd McShay (ESPN College Scouting Insider) and Mel Kiper Jr. (ESPN NFL Draft Insider) chewing each other’s heads off debating the top five quarterbacks for the 2011 draft.

Overall, though, Sports­Center is a place of quiet joy—a place where needs are understood and met, like an opium den. In a bar in Boston, with Sports­Center exploding at low volume in the background, I quizzed the bartender about the show. “I lit up a joint the other day and watched the football,” he told me, “and I saw it in a whole new way. It was soap opera crossed with war.” The attraction of sports is inexhaustible: the fan, unlike the player, does not grow old. Or rather, he doesn’t grow up. And in the eternal present of SportsCenter, its endless boogie of stats and replays and breaking news, he finds his peace. Life is simply too muddled, too busy. Who can make sense of this scrum of incident? We can: we have the Ford Edge Touchscreen. So what happened here, Merril? What happened?

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