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A Tower of Babble
Steve Rushin
January 15, 2001
Incessant and indiscriminate yakking about sports has become an infectious disease
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January 15, 2001

A Tower Of Babble

Incessant and indiscriminate yakking about sports has become an infectious disease

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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.

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 mal-nourishing 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, Collins-worth 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 sports-writer, 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.

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