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Spoonfeedin WOrld

Sports – Don’t Bore Us With the Obvious

SKIP ROZIN
September is the perfect month for sports fans. Baseball is rushing toward the playoffs, pro and college football start in earnest, and the U.S. Open showcases the elite in tennis, all accessible by flicking the remote. Thank goodness for TV.

Well, sort of. While my high-def set flashed nonstop action these past weeks, the narration was cluttered with talk—about the rain that disrupted so many matches at the Open, about the Chicago White Sox giving up on their season by trading key players, about athletes’ teenage success.

You’d think television would have learned by now. Radio had relied on words to paint images of the action—or inaction—on the field. And when television gave us pictures, its early sports commentators continued to cram every second of air time with detailed descriptions of the obvious. Few still do, but the terror of dead air lives on.

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M.E. Cohen
.Don’t misunderstand; I love good talk, talk that draws back the curtain separating fans from athletes and their games. Have you ever watched a baseball game and seen a batter hit a single and then visit with the first baseman? I want to know what they’re discussing. Or in football, when receiver and safety lock up chasing a pass that barely eludes their outstretched hands, then jaw at each other as they trot back up field—what are they saying? When a manager blows up at the umpire, is he really angry or just supporting his player? These are the secrets from which fans are barred; that’s the talk I’m eager to hear, not drivel.

Coverage of the Open on CBS and ESPN offered pap and substance. We learned that Fernando González’s father managed a flour mill, that Robin Söderling’s appearance in the quarterfinals was a resurgence of Swedish tennis. Fortunately, that wasn’t all. Late-round appearances by Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters and Juan Martín del Potro brought enlightened observations about the new breed of bigger, stronger players. John McEnroe said that Mr. del Potro’s size advantage over Rafael Nadal (6-foot-6 versus 6-foot-1) frustrated Mr. Nadal throughout his straight-set semifinal defeat, and helped the Argentinean rally to upset five-time Open champion Roger Federer in the final. “I just wish I could hit one ball the way these kids do today,” added Billie Jean King.

But the most controversial incident of the Open, Serena Williams’s explosion at a lineswoman after being charged with a foot-fault violation in her semifinal match against Ms. Clijsters, generated little insight. It was her second transgression and resulted in a penalty point, costing her the match and the chance to defend her 2008 singles title—big news that rated little more than a tsk-tsk. Lead CBS commentator Dick Enberg said it was “not what champions do.” Here we needed more talk instead of less, an informed explanation of Ms. Williams’s crude and uncharacteristic outburst. Was she frustrated by an opponent as physically gifted as she, driven temporarily mad by seeing the match slip away? Nobody with a microphone offered any help.

Since television gives us all the action, commentators are most valuable when they provide information that fans cannot discern for themselves. We want more than a tedious dissection of the previous play, canned facts from press releases or trivia about an athlete’s childhood.

Because of football’s complexity, broadcasts can befuddle as well as inform. Too often, commentators on pro games barrage us with waves of technospeak when a simple observation would add valuable perspective. As the New York Jets continually harassed New England star Tom Brady during their recent upset victory, CBS’s Dan Dierdorf adroitly summed up Mr. Brady’s bad day: “He’s a classic pocket quarterback. If you can make him relocate, you are doing your job on defense.”

College coverage tends to focus less on analysis and more on the excitement of the game, but it can also provide a glimpse at backstories rarely known off campus. Boston College at Clemson last week introduced us to Mark Herzlich, BC’s linebacker working as a coach while recovering from cancer; before the kickoff, Clemson presented him with a team jersey signed by the seniors and $5,000 for BC’s chapter of Uplifting Athletes, football players who raise money for victims of rare diseases.

The key is to balance entertainment and information. Commentary should be interesting but also advance fans’ understanding of the game or its players.

Early in last week’s NFL game at Dallas, New York Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce suddenly waved his hands about his helmet—most puzzling. Cris Collinsworth of NBC explained that he was changing the defense. It led to an interception and touchdown.

Perhaps the best look inside sports came from Fox during a Saturday game in Anaheim earlier this month between the Los Angeles Angels and Chicago White Sox. In the third inning, with Chicago leading 1-0, Angels right fielder Bobby Abreu misplayed Scott Podsednik’s line drive into an inside-the-park home run. One batter later, he missed another ball—this time clearly an error—allowing a run to score. Was Mr. Abreu embarrassed, I wondered? Was Angels pitcher Ervin Santana furious at his teammate?

The next inning, Fox field reporter Ken Rosenthal described Mr. Abreu walking over to his pitcher while the Angels were hitting, apparently to apologize; Mr. Santana then told Mr. Abreu to shake it off. “Obviously, I can’t tell exactly, but it looked like that,” said Mr. Rosenthal by phone last week. “I’m reading body language: Abreu frowned; Santana smiled, and put his hands up and seemed to be saying, don’t sweat it.”

That’s what commentary should do: Open the door to the secrets from which fans are usually barred. If it can’t do more than tell me what’s on the screen, shut it down and let me enjoy the pretty color pictures.

—Mr. Rozin writes about sports for the Journal.

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September 28, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

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