Sports rarely lives up to the hype

Publish date:

Up and down the Eastern Seaboard, wearing grim faces and network windbreakers, TV reporters were acting out that modern broadcast cliché last weekend, Buffoons in Typhoons. Or they were trying to, as Irene made landfall with less fury than expected.

Still, those gratuitous live shots provided a public service. They weren't warning people to evacuate -- that had been done much earlier, thank goodness -- but they did show the benefit of hip-waders, the better to withstand the rising tide of hype that now extends even to violent weather.

We're subjected to so much manufactured hysteria, willful exaggeration and unadulterated b.s. that I now feel duty-bound to succumb to it -- literally duty-bound, considering the number of Must-See videos and Must-Read stories to which we're directed on a daily basis.

Hype covers every surface of mass culture, and sports fans are intimately familiar with it -- the heavy-breathing buildup that leads, inevitably, to a first-round knockout or a 30-point blowout or a fourth-inning rainout.

In this context, Usain Bolt's false start and instant disqualification in the 100-meter final at the World Track and Field Championships shouldn't have been surprising. But it was. Somehow it always is. As a result, the world won't see Bolt in a major final until next summer, at what is officially named the Games of the XXX Olympiad. Which is why we'll call it the London Olympics, since things to which Roman numerals are appended -- Super Bowls, Thurston Howells, Rocky movies -- are almost always self-inflated and disappointing.

Decoded, the Roman numerals act as a helpful warning label, a tacked-on disclaimer warning you that WrestleMania XXVII -- or Caddyshack II -- will not meet your expectations. On the surface, though, they do the opposite: Movie credits traditionally list the year of production in Roman numerals to give every film a veneer of timelessness it wouldn't otherwise possess.

But that's what hype does, or attempts to do. To breathe temporary life into its subject, it first has to strangle the language. How many athletes are "icons," "legends" or "superstars"? (Or all those nouns at once, a triple threat of overstatement?) An extreme example is the word "extreme." "Extreme" sports begat "extreme" products like Right Guard Extreme, kicking off a slow erosion of meaning, until "extreme" was effectively retired with recent news stories on "extreme couponing."

With the white noise of hype constantly thrumming in the background, it's seems harder than ever to hear the music. Derek Jeter's march to 3,000 hits was so exhaustively anticipated, with the duration (and profile) of a presidential campaign cycle, that the Yankee shortstop would have had to go 5-for-5 -- and homer for the milestone -- if he was to exceed the advance notice. That he did so is, of course, what made Jeter's achievement so remarkable. Hype is supposed to overpromise and underdeliver, not overpromise and overdeliver. Usually it doesn't deliver at all -- it takes your money and keeps your pizza.

When I read Tuesday that the Minnesota Vikings might have to move if the state can't reach a deal for a new stadium, I tried to count the number of years I'd been reading that same story, in which veiled warnings are always issued. Every ultimatum eventually leads to another ultimatum, rendering the previous ultimatum a penultimatum. The Vikings never move, they're never going to move, but their fans will still be sucked into the blades of this hyperbole. The phrase "NFL combine" always sounds redundant, because the league is a combine harvester, reaping and threshing everything in its path.

We were sucked into the NFL labor dispute on the relentlessly repeated grounds that the 2011 season would be wiped out. Turns out it won't be, but we had no way of knowing that. Strangely, the more hype we hear, the less inured we become to it. Hype is all we can process anymore. For years, some of sports' most exciting stories were those without a word of advance publicity, as when John Daly won the 1991 PGA Championship. Twenty years later, there's derision when the winner of a major golf tournament is someone we've never heard of. Our champions should be decidedly heard-of, the more heard-of the better, which is why people still pine for the most heard-of athlete of our time, Tiger Woods, to return to contention in the majors.

But even Woods couldn't live up to continuous hype, which knows only best- and worst-case scenarios -- what were once known as "extremes," before that word was applied to shampoos and energy drinks.

Hurricane Irene's advance coverage was heavy on worst-case scenarios. Thank goodness they didn't pan out. And while the storm was deadly, and remains deeply disruptive to millions without power, it was still perceived by many around the country as "overhyped," a word that appeared in many headlines and stories.

If that overhyping saved lives, we should be grateful. But the fact that "overhyped" has entered our vocabulary suggests that there's such a thing as an appropriate amount of "hype." The word means "excessive publicity and its ensuing commotion." By that definition, "overhype" is an excessive amount of excessive publicity. Plain-old "hype" has come to mean just the right amount of excess.

Perhaps that's what the storm coverage was. Our house was in Irene's path, and we were relieved that the storm barely touched us. We did lose power for two days, but it was no hardship. On the first pitch-black night, I stood over my kitchen sink ingesting, by flashlight, a burglar's meal of Bud Light and cupcake, and was struck by how silent the house was, without a TV or radio urgently shouting in my ear.