Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Expert knowledge or pointless rhetoric?

One of my biggest pet peeves has been--for a long time, now--the growing tendency of networks to employee ex-athletes as broadcasters and commentators for sports events. To be sure, this isn't a new thing. For decades, local radio and television stations have gone down this road, often picking local sports heroes to do the color commentary on radio for both college and professional games. And it's probably fair to allow that many of these ex-players tried to do a good job in this regard, worked at their craft (often because their playing careers were things of the past or had never materialized). I listened to ex-jocks Jim Mandich and Joe Rose--both former Dolphins--for years on the radio. They were fine. And with regard to such people getting gigs on the local nightly news, the story is not much different. Name recognition got them their job, but many worked to be good at that job. Of course, some never had the chops to be good at such things and never would. That's the nature of the beast. Sam Malone from Cheers makes a useful--if fictional--example:

But there's always been an air of amateurism surrounding local newscasts and the broadcasting of local sports events. In a way, these things are--or at least were--training grounds for television and radio  personalities who dreamed of bigger things, of the national stage. For at the national level, standards are supposed to be higher. Frank Gifford, it is true, had a long career as a sprotscaster. But he earned his spot on Monday Night Football by actually being good at play by play. He's not alone in that regard, as a far as former athletes go. There are others like him.

But far too many are exactly the opposite. They went from being sports superstars to top-tier sportscasters. And it shows, often resulting in commentary just too painful to watch. Especially noteworthy are the crowd of basketball commentators on TNT for games and for Inside the NBA: Barkley, Shaq, etc. It is in my opinion just bad television, not worth watching. So I don't. There are a large number of football commentators every bit as bad, though. Here, Joe Theismann and Paul Maguire top my list of the worst of the worst. And lets face it, all of these folks are homers of one sort of another, play favorites, and let personal relationships with players and teams influence what they say.

Apart from the obvious angle of name recognition, the supposed point of hiring ex-players to do commentary is their abiltiy to bring their own expertise and knoweldge about a given sport to bare, for the benefit of the viewer/listener. And I guess they sometimes do, even the bad ones. Often times, however, broadcasts devolve into what can only be described as pajama parties, with commentators cracking jokes that no one else gets and generally behaving like twelve year olds.

At the end of the day, though, this all just sports, just entertainment. So what? All the networks really care about is ratings, right? Still, having some actual journalists in the field is a plus in my mind. Costas, Cosell, Enberg, Michaels, Mckay, these men brought something to the table: critical unbiased minds, a work ethic, and a level of seriousness that made sports broadcasting their vocation, not just an occupation. Any one of them could have stepped into hard news with ease. Joe Theismann reporting on the situation in Syria? Please.

But this appears to be the "new normal" for sports broadcasting. And again, it still is just sports.

Unfortunately, the same train of thought that has put all of these ex-athletes into journalistic roles has apparently spread. Otherwise, what is Eliot Spitzer really doing on the air? George Stephanopoulos? James Carville? The list goes on and on. And in print, every major media source runs pieces by former politicians and political operatives masquerading as political or economic analysis. From Rove to Krugman, these people are taken seriously by huge swaths of the general population who often assume what they write is somehow not grounded in political bias.

Some people refuse to be taken in, of course, which partly explains the popularity of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Still, the great majority seems to have fallen for the idea that these people have something special to offer, possess superior political or economic acumen, by nature of their past jobs. And even more importantly, people assume these erstwhile wannabe journalists can remain--to some degree--objective. Neither idea is true, as a matter of course. And it's probably about time that we started putting our collective feet down in this regard.

Cheers, all.

1 comment:

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