I’m a 56 year old Caucasian semidisabled woman who has lived in the wilds of southern New Jersey for over fourteen years now. I grew up before Title IX became law, in an age where it was frowned upon for women to participate in any sport other than tennis, tennis being a socially acceptable sport, or ‘hobby’, for aspiring young girls. The pervasive attitude was also, and I quote here, that :”boys don’t like girls who play sports, they’re not feminine and it looks, you know, odd…” At the parochial high school I attended, I tried out for and made the girls’ varsity basketball team as a freshman. I had to turn down the chance to participate in basketball because my mother didn’t drive, I didn’t drive, and my father ‘worked late’, too late for me to attend practices and make the games. As it was, I had to take two buses to and from school. Had I stayed for practices, I would be traveling home by bus in the dark, something which my mother found totally unacceptable. Since my father was the only licensed driver in the family, he could not or would not commit to a basketball season schedule. What stung the most was the fact that I was the only one who seemed to even care that I had made the team, let alone the fact that no one could be inconvenienced by my team schedule…
Why am I sharing this with the global Internet world? Honestly, I really don’t know. After all these years, the sting is still there, perhaps. But it’s been forty years, folks, it’s time to just let it go. My own daughters are now 20 and 16. The eldest was an amazingly talented soccer player who was, unfortunately, more interested in socializing than honing her skills. The younger, at 16, is slightly over six feet tall. She has played organized sports since the age of five. She’s been lucky enough to have had really successful careers in soccer, field hockey, basketball, tennis, softball and lacrosse, but was also lucky enough to have found her true passion for cross country and track and field in her freshman year. She now claims ownership of four varsity letters, and still has two more years of high school to finish. While watching a cross country race or a hurdling event (she’s the only junior in her school who is a hurdler!), it’s not as much fun or exciting as a good, old fashioned down and dirty soccer match or lacrosse game. (She did, however, suffer a concussion in lacrosse (got consistently check in the head because of her height), broke her wrist and elbow in basketball, and broke three major bones in her left leg playing soccer.) We’re thrilled that she’s found a sport that she can carry with her throughout life! (And one that incurs significantly less bodily contact as well!)
But, ah, back to my newest best friend, ESPN. Over the years, I took great pride and had an awful lot of fun watching my girls play sports. It was, sad to say, like a second chance for me out there on the field. Having finally come to terms with that fact, I moved on – their games were their games, not a reflection upon me as a person. About seven years ago, I was very badly injured in a boating accident in south Florida. (The only good thing that ever, ever came out of that was that I was legally able to have handicapped parking access; it was a horrible experience for me and my family.) I now continue to work as a writer, although I have turned down staff positions. It’s just easier for me physically and mentally to go the freelance writer way. Some days (cold, wet) are worse than others (warm verging on hot, hot, hot!) Instead of playing sports, somehow over the course of the past two years, I turned to watching it to the point of fanaticism.
I’m not a big fan of daytime television, with the exception of the witty Ellen DeGeneres talk show, MSNBC, the Daily Show and the regular news programs. Slowly, over the course of several months, I found myself tuning into ESPN. At first, it was for sports updates on my favorite teams. Remember, I grew up during the era of those wonderful Baltimore Colts. My uncles are graduates of Johns Hopkins University, so I watched more lacrosse games than I ever expected. For the past fourteen years, we have lived in a Philadelphia commuter suburb, so we automatically became fans of (most) Philadelphia’s teams. We actually arrived when McNabb was drafted, we remember when Iverson first came here. You get sucked into the whole Philly sports fan thing even if you don’t know a first down from an audible. Frankly, the Philly sports scene, at least right now, is pretty darned grim. We haven’t won a major title in ANYTHING for as long as I can remember. We are still smarting from that lickin’ we took in Jacksonville’s Superbowl two years ago. I honestly don’t know how it happened. I do know that I was bored to death with most morning programs on regular and cable television, and somehow found a real comfort zone with the ESPN channels. The fact that as Philly sports fans, we’re the Sad Sacks of the sports world probably did contribute to my blossoming thirst for up to the minute sports information…
I have my choice of watching Mike & Mike (Michael Greenberg, a slight, erudite, polished persona, teamed with former Eagles player Mike Golic – big, burly, a man’s man) on air doing their A.M. radio show live from ESPN studios. Or I can watch what happened the day before in the world of sports on ESPN1, the franchise’s ‘main’ and original network, on SportsCenter. ESPN has some pretty darned good women anchors (Chris McKendry comes first to mid) as well as reporters (the apparently perpetually cheerful Wendi Nix, Michael Straihan’s choice of sports reporters he’s most like to chew up and spit out at a press conference). During the course of the day, depending upon what’s happening, between the two ESPN channels, there is literally something always going on.
Oddly enough, many of the ‘central cast’ of ESPN’s shows are names that most of America have never – or will never – have heard of. They’re sportswriters, by and large, although retired coaches, players, agents (unfortunately) and reporters are also featured. Some of these guys (and they are 99% guys, with the exception of the gutsy Jackie McMullen) are pretty good on camera. They’ve practiced their schtick, they’re polished, they’re well-spoken. (Unlike the truly dreadful Michael Irvin, former Dallas Cowboys receiver and BFF of Terrell Owens, who appears as a pre-game panelist for one of the major networks. If I have to listen to Irvin pronounce words such as ‘world’ as ‘whirl’ one more time, I will toss my TV Guide in his general direction.) It has often occurred to me in passing that if it were not for ESPN, these men would never, ever have the access that they do in America’s living rooms. I’m not totally convinced that this is a good thing, however. Being a sportswriter does not by and of itself make you any more of an expert on all aspects, or even just one, of sports than a network anchor mean that you are a member of MENSA and know EXACTLY what those big words on the cue cards really mean…food for thought.
But the real action starts mid-afternoon! “Jim Rome is Burning” is one of several daily weekday programs that kicks off some of the best of ESPN’s programming. Rome is an attractive, youngish sports writer who hosts a half-hour show in which he pretty much machine-guns down those athletes – and pretty much anyone else in the world – with whose actions or statements he disagrees; Rome normally has a live/videotaped guest star from the sports world, and chats it up with two lesser known sports reporters to wind up his segment. Last week, one of his newest ‘roving reporters’ was Ms. Lee, the world’s leading WPBA title holder. (She plays billiards, guys), who took viewers up close and personal and backstage at a WPBA tournament in which one of the top contenders was an 8 1/2 months’ pregnant gal. Following Rome is the fabulously entertaining “Around the Horn”, hosted by Tony Reali, a Jersey guy if I ever saw one (and that’s a compliment, kid!) Four rotating sportswriters – usually drawing from the pool of Tim Cowlishaw, Woody Paige, Jay Mariotti, A.J. Adande, Michael J. Smith, Bob Ryan, and Jackie McMullen – present a show of ‘competitive banter’. Points are awarded on a shamelessly discriminate basis by Reali to each of the four contestants for stating their views on current sports topics. It’s actually not so much what they say sometimes, it’s how they say it. Sometimes the ATH panelists wear goofy get ups in accordance to a theme (‘four of the world’s most dapper sportswriters’, ‘four of the world’s sleepiest sportswriters’), but the end result is always, always hilarious. Panelists are passionate enough about their feelings on topics that each day brings a new ‘brawl’ to one degree or another between them. It’s on this show that Paige has really made a name for himself, with his signature blackboard with a witty or goofy or both saying each day, his voice rising time and again as he pleads his case for or against Terrell Owens, the Broncos, Cal Ripken, Barry Bonds, and the miserable world of American soccer. The show concludes with a ‘showdown’ between the two panelists having the most points; they are asked between two or three questions to gain enough points for some ‘face time’ as the game’s winner – 40 seconds on which they can expound to their heart’s content on any sports subject. It’s a great, funny, energizing show, with a long-running ‘feud’ between Paige and Mariotti as the frosting on the cake.
(Paige had found what seemed to be instant fame as part of the ESPN mid-morning show ‘Cold Pizza’. Partnered with the seemingly staid, conservative Skip Bayliss, Paige appeared more than happy to play the loud, outspoken ‘fool’ to Bayliss’ onscreen cool persona. In November of last year, Paige departed ESPN after two years with the network to return to his former position as sportswriter for the Denver Post, where he now publishes four columns weekly. ‘Cold Pizza’ appears to be in a major meltdown as the network shuffles through dozens of guest co-hosts hoping to find the same kind of ‘vinegar and oil’ rapport held by Paige and Bayliss. Stay tuned!)
Following the exceedingly funny ATH comes ‘Pardon the Interruption’, hosted by “Mr. Tony” Kornheiser, a D.C. area iconic sportswriter and Michael Wilbon, a Chicago-based sportswriter. Kornheiser is white, Wilbon African-American, and the chemistry between these two is absolutely terrific! Mr. Tony often pulls out his “Swami” routine where he ‘predicts’ the future outcome of upcoming sports events. Wilbon (who looked quite handsome even when he wore glasses!) is suave, charming, funny and bright, as easy on the eyes as he is to hear. Mr. Tony is the irascible self-proclaimed ‘old guy’. They rarely, rarely agree, but this two-host show works so well because of an intagible bond between the balding white guy and the African American (and totally, 100% clean shaved) Wilbon. The show raps up with Reali back as the ‘stat guy’, telling the hosts which information they provided (much of it totally off the top of their heads) was wrong. It’s a delightful, funny lead-in to SportsCenter, a multi-hosted show featuring live and taped segments of ‘breaking news in the sports world’.
Why do I enjoy ESPN so much? (Especially since ESPN quite often doesn’t get tibs on the ‘big’ shows: the NFL games, major college football games, a large portion of NBA games and NHL games as well.) I honestly don’t know. Maybe I could have become just as ‘infatuated’ by the channel that runs ‘Law and Order’ seemingly 24/7, or Comedy Central. Perhaps the novelty of watching one channel (actually, two!) that focuses 100% on the everchanging, fast-paced world of sports is what sucked me in. After all, watching pro sports is allegedly a national past time, no matter what the season or time of year. If only we could get up off of our chairs and couches and actually PLAY a few sports, maybe, just maybe, that obsession just might pass…