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A Tower of Babble Incessant and indiscriminate yakking about sports has become an infectious disease

Jan. 15, 2001
Jan. 15, 2001

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Jan. 15, 2001

A Tower of Babble Incessant and indiscriminate yakking about sports has become an infectious disease

It is said--by those who avoid proctological similes--that
opinions are like navels: Everybody's got one. But that isn't
true. Opinions are more like vacation photographs, or cold
germs, or stupefying anecdotes on airplanes: Everybody's got
loads of them, and nobody's shy about sharing.

This is an article from the Jan. 15, 2001 issue Original Layout

America now has more opinions than it has subjects on which to
opine. (The first letter I received, after writing a recent
column on happiness, came down in opposition to happiness.) How
have we arrived at this opinion glut? As with so many other
puzzling phenomena--Hairagami, for instance, or Larry King--we
can start with cable television.

Cable, with its combative Crossfires and Hardballs and Hannity &
Colmeses, increasingly exists on a malnourishing diet of
"debate." There are now at least half a dozen channels whose
prime-time schedules are devoted, almost exclusively, to
arguments about the two subjects we were told never to talk about
in polite company: politics and religion. AM radio, too, is
little more than an always-open Speaker's Corner for the ranting
right and the lunatic left. All of which would have delighted
Mark Twain. "It's a difference of opinion," he wrote, "that makes
horse races." Yes, but it's a difference of opinion--contrived,
contrarian, tedious argument--that now seems to make all sports go
round.

NFL pregame shows have become undercards to the games themselves:
Howie versus Terry on Fox, Collinsworth versus Glanville on HBO,
Ditka versus Sanity on CBS. (We will save for another day the
pregame panel on Fox Sports Net, which makes The McLaughlin Group
look like the Algonquin round table.) Throw in Jim Rome, Sports
Reporters on ESPN, Classic Reporters on ESPN Classic, The Keith
Olbermann Show on Fox Sports Net, HBO's forthcoming On the Record
with Bob Costas, SI, ESPN The Magazine, The Sporting News, USA
Today, CNNSI.com, ESPN.com, CBS Sportsline.com, your local
newspaper and local all-sports radio stations, and maybe--just
maybe--the republic is getting sufficient views on the Tennessee
Titans' offense.

Talking about sports, after all, can be only so interesting.
There's a saying, variously attributed to Thelonious Monk, Frank
Zappa and others, that goes: "Writing about music is like dancing
about architecture." Writing about sports can be a bit like that
too--two steps removed from playing, and even a step removed from
watching. Tell many women (even those who are sports fans) what
your occupation is, and the sportswriter often gets this
response: a polite nod, followed by a halfhearted "You don't
say," followed by an awkward silence, followed by a puffing of
cheeks, followed by a long whistling exhalation, followed by a
suddenly remembered appointment over by the bean dip. It is much
the same response you give when you ask a person where he's from
and he says, "North Dakota." There really is nothing to say in
reply. You have reached a conversational cul-de-sac.

But tell most men (even those who aren't sports fans) that you're
a sportswriter, and what frequently follows is much worse--a
45-minute filibuster on the inadequacies of the BCS, the
shortcomings of Notre Dame football, the folly of A-Rod's
contract, the genius of Bill Parcells, the unfair firing of Bob
Knight, the imbecility of the infield-fly rule, the solution to
the goalie controversy in Ottawa and on and on and on. Nuances
are seldom entertained. Arguments are almost always in black and
white.

In that regard life is beginning to imitate sports talk radio,
which must fill 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a
year with manufactured outrage. Hosts are required to have more
positions than the Kamasutra and get exercised, in equal measure,
over pulled hamstrings and murder trials. And who are the people
who call these shows? Are they the same people, incontinent of
opinion, who answer opinion polls? If so, does that mean they are
people who are unable to figure out a way to get off the phone
when a pollster calls them at the dinner hour? As a comedian said
about juries, "I don't want to be judged by anybody who wasn't
smart enough to get out of jury duty."

The fact is, there aren't enough issues in sports that ought to
elicit outrage on a near daily basis. So what kind of
boor--self-important, insufferable, incapable of having a single
thought that goes unexpressed--lives in the delusion that someone
actually cares what he thinks? It's just a guess, but perhaps
he's the kind of person who peppers his conversation with French
phrases, speaks frequently of himself and pretends he's well-read
by strip-mining an $8.99 dictionary of quotations.

In a word: me. Or as the French novelist Gustave Flaubert might
have put it: moi.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO