The Big Letdown More and more often, sports are the victims of their own incessant hype

January 14, 2002

Life is full of little disappointments. The socialist worker's
paradise, for instance, was a bit of a letdown, to say nothing
of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. But few things in
life are more anticlimactic, more deeply disappointing, than the
big-time sports extravaganza, which promises so much and
delivers so little. It isn't only the Super Bowl, which annually
inflates our expectations and then instantly--seconds after
kickoff--lets the air out, with the sound of a whoopee cushion
deflating. No, the BCS is even worse. Nearly four weeks of
foreplay preceded last week's Rose Bowl, which turned out to be
fun for exactly seven minutes. One could almost see Keith
Jackson's soul leave his body and briefly hover above the booth
as he called the Miami-Nebraska fiasco "an instant classic," by
way of promoting its rerunning, six days later, on ESPN Classic.
As Jackson well knew, the game was a 22-pound Butterball, and
we, its unlucky viewers, were left to wallow in our tryptophan
comas.

Given the hype that precedes every sports event--like a courtier
scattering rose petals in advance of a king--serial
disappointment is perhaps inevitable. Sports are becoming one
big bait and switch. Promising a freak show, the XFL lured
millions into its tent one week, only to strip us of our boxer
shorts and show us the egress. With every breathless promo for
the forthcoming Winter Olympics, our raised expectations only
have further to fall. Even baseball seems to have reneged on its
promise of contraction: Hysteria attended the announced
execution of the Minnesota Twins, who last week, in near
silence, hired a new manager for the 2002 season. I love the
Twins; still I feel badly used by baseball owners, who assured
me in November that my team would be euthanized. Like a war
widow whose mate was prematurely presumed dead, I had hastily
married the Chicago Cubs in a December civil ceremony. Now what
am I to do?

Of course, sports aren't the only offenders who so frequently
set us up for a fall, the way Lucy did when holding for
placekicker Charlie Brown. No indeed: For two years my every
meal has been the bottled water and canned ravioli that I
hoarded, in my basement, in anticipation of the inevitable Y2K
catastrophe. At the very least, though, sports are in a dead
heat with politics and the movies for failure to deliver. Ali
was not bad, just not as glorious as the trailer, print ads,
advance reviews, interviews with the Greatest and wishful
thinking had led me to hope. Michael Jordan's comeback has been
spectacular of late, but he'd have to score 51 every night to
justify what my colleague Jack McCallum calls "the six-month
striptease" that preceded his decision to play. (By the time MJ
was down to his Hanes, I had all but lost interest.)

Every athlete and coach is so thoroughly vivisected in the days
preceding any game of import that the games themselves seem an
unnecessary postscript. "We've talked about this game every way
you possibly can," said ESPN's Mark Malone on the eve of last
weekend's Jets-Raiders game, thus ensuring that--come Sunday--I
would sit on the couch with a deep disquiet coming over me.
"Disappointment," as Jackie Wilson sang, "was my only friend."

Spontaneity is what distinguishes sports from other forms of
entertainment. Anything can happen--or so we'd like to think.
But when the anchors and analysts and, lest we forget, the
thumb-sucking columnists have so thoroughly chewed our food for
us in advance, it all ends up tasting like Gerber's strained
peas. Eventually we lose our appetite.

The NFL playoffs are about to begin, and each game will be
billed by the networks as a profoundly entertaining epic,
Biblical in importance. The games will be prehashed and rehashed
and become Instant Classics. Some of them will even be
watchable. More likely than not, however, they will leave me
asking, Is that all there is? And the networks will answer, No,
wait, there's so much more. Then they will broadcast the Pro Bowl.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)