The Unexamined Game Is Not Worth Watching

The stadium scene.
May 11 1997 3:30 AM

The Unexamined Game Is Not Worth Watching

Toward a philosophy of viewing sports on television.

Illustration by Keith Seidel

As an achiever, I constantly look for new techniques of achievement and seek to minimize behaviors with low achievement yield. Thus it is only natural that I have begun to worry about the amount of time I spend watching sports on television--an activity that does not measurably advance any of my personal or professional agendas.

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Most alarmingly, sports have become a steel curtain between me and my family. My wife and three daughters shun me when I turn on a ballgame. Occasionally I try to "relate" to the kids by asking them to fetch Daddy a beer, but I sense that they are drifting away--that I have become, for them, every bit as useless, burdensome, and low-yielding in immediate practical utility as they are for me.

I realized that something had to change. I needed to take firm, decisive action.

And so I made a solemn vow: I would teach my wife and kids to watch sports with me.

Yes, I would! And something more: I would become a better, more sophisticated, more deeply engaged viewer of TV sports. I would become a man for whom sports viewership is not just a bad habit, but a skill.

I have sought counsel from experts and engaged in rigorous tests in my own home. What follows are some simple precepts for Next Level sports viewership.

The very first thing you must do, before we get into any actual viewing techniques, is ask yourself why sports are an important part of your life. Why do sports matter? Do you like sports because they show that effort, practice, and innovation lead to positive results? Because sports are an outlet for our primitive barbarian hostilities? Because in sports we discover a dramatic metaphor for our desire to move into new terrain and reach goals that can be statistically measured? The answer to all these questions is: Don't be stupid. You watch sports for the simple reason that sports don't matter a jot. You like sports precisely because of their utter insignificance. You find this relaxing. Always remember the pre-eminent rule of the sports junkie:

1. Don't start thinking like George Will.

Next, you must configure your viewing area. For help in this regard I called Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films Inc., the company that produces Inside the NFL for HBO. Sabol, I knew, watches a heroic amount of football, from which he gleans the highlights for his films. NFL Films has a signature style: Sweaty, grunting, muddy men move in super slow motion while the baritone narrator describes the events as though the fate of nations hung in the balance. Sabol, a former college football player, says, "That's the way I wanted to show the game, with the snot spraying, the sweat flying. Football is a very visceral sport. Before we started it was always filmed from the top, and it looked like a little chess set."

His viewing procedures are quite advanced. Every Sunday he watches three games at once. "I have a little cockpit that's built in my den. There's one set, the predominant game, that's on a 30-inch TV, and I have two 19-inch TVs that are slanted inward. So it's like a cockpit. You have to have good peripheral vision and you have to really concentrate."

So that's the next tip:

2. Get more, and bigger, televisions.

If you have only a single 19-inch television and you can't afford to upgrade, just sit a lot closer. If you get close enough to the set, it's almost as good as going out and buying a multi-thousand-dollar "home theater."

Sabol said he has to take the occasional pit stop, but even that is conveniently arranged.

"The bathroom's right by the set. If I have to take a piss I can still see the screen."

3. Keep your eye on the screen at all times, even when you are trying to trim a child's toenails.

Sabol said he sits in a "Relax-a-back" chair, a kind of recliner, but cautions that this is not for the novice. The worst-case scenario for the sports viewer is the unplanned nap. "Those are dangerous. I only recommend those for the more experienced viewers. You need stamina to do this. You need a good night's sleep. You have to be careful about having too big a breakfast, because that will put you to sleep. The trick is to have a series of small snacks for a 10-hour period."

Illustration by Keith Seidel

4. Come to the television rested. Don't eat meals--graze.

(Sabol reckons that on a given Sunday he starts watching at 11 a.m. and doesn't stop until 11 p.m., at the end of the cable-TV broadcast. Before his divorce, his wife didn't quite understand that this was work, he says.)

Now comes the harder stuff, the actual watching--the seeing, if you will--of the actions on the screen. You must keep in mind that you are not directly watching an event, but rather are watching a produced and directed telecast of an event, manipulated by talented but not infallible professionals. To better understand how a sports program is put together, I called Rudy Martzke, the TV sports columnist for USA Today, who watches between 40 and 60 hours of TV sports a week on the 60-inch Pioneer screen in his family room.

Martzke is full of facts and well-educated opinions: The typical Monday Night Football broadcast uses about 13 cameras, compared with only about eight for Fox's primary game Sunday afternoon; Goodyear's Steadycam allows sharp-focus blimp shots even when the blimp is being blown all over the sky; the glowing puck used on Fox hockey games is officially called Fox Trax; Bob Costas at NBC is the best host in the business; and Al Michaels at ABC is the best play-by-play guy.

Unseen to viewers, but extremely important, are the producers and directors.

"The director is the guy who calls the shots you see on the screen. He's the one who inserts the graphics," says Martzke. "Got a guy sitting next to him who's called the technical director. The director, when he yells out the instructions, 'cut to this picture, that picture, this camera, that camera,' the guy who follows him up, physically, is the technical director. The producer sits to the left of the director. The producer is the one who gets in the replays, the one who's in charge of the format of the show. He makes sure all those commercial breaks get in, so they're paid."

Obviously only Rudy Martzke ever thinks twice about these people, but this creates a chance for you to sound authoritative when someone challenges you on your sports-viewership expertise. Let other people talk about who caught what pass or made what tackle; you can say things like, "Sandy Grossman uses down-and-yardage graphics better than any director in the game."

The point of all this is:

5. Never let anyone know that you've forgotten thename of the "announcer."

The hardest part of all is knowing what to look for when you watch television. In basketball, for example, the referee will often blow the whistle and call "illegal defense," which few viewers ever see in advance. This is because they are only watching the ball. Illegal defense occurs when a defender plays zone rather than man-to-man. Thus you should always look for someone who's just guarding a patch of the court, standing around looking suspicious. When you detect an illegal defense before the referee makes the call, you have completely arrived as a TV sports viewer.

In baseball, don't just watch the flight of the ball from the pitcher's hand toward the batter. Look directly at the pitcher's hand and see if you can see what kind of grip he's using--that will tell you whether it's a curve, slider, fastball, splitter, knuckleball, or whatever.

In golf, look at the wrists and elbows of the golfer as he or she putts. The great ones have almost no movement in their arms, wrists, and hands other than the gentlest of pendulum swings.

In hockey, change channels. You will never see the puck.

When Sabol watches a football game, he scrutinizes an area in front of the runner and including the runner. "It's a semicircle with a radius of about 3 yards," he estimates.

6. Expand your zone of attention.

In preliminary tests with my own family, I determined that they have a long, long, long way to go before they are major-league sports fans. One Sunday I plunked my two oldest daughters in chairs directly in front of the set and channel-surfed from baseball to basketball to women's golf to figure skating. During the basketball game, my medium-sized daughter, who is not quite 4, said of Joe Dumars: "Is that a girl?" So the first thing we will do, with this particular daughter, is work on gender identification.

Both daughters, meanwhile, have decided to become figure skaters when they grow up. You can see that this is drifting into a scary area: I might teach them to watch sports on television, but they might decide that "sports" includes massive doses of Brian Boitano and Oksana Baiul. My natural inclination is to watch figure skating quadrennially.

Mary, my wife, is simply a lost cause. She is an extremely discerning person who can detect the most subtle spice in a bowl of soup or a whisper of colored thread in a suit jacket, but for some reason she can stare at a basketball game on television and miss the important details, such as the ball going into the hoop.

"What just happened?" I demanded to know after Michael Jordan made a jump shot during a Chicago Bulls game.

"I don't know. I was still thinking about the last commercial," she said.

7. Don't pay attention to the commercials, thesqueakiness of the basketball court, the spitting in the dugout, the sweating, or fluids of any kind.

Once the techniques of viewing are mastered, there remains a major step: analysis. There is no point in watching if one is not really "seeing" anything. Sabol gave me a final tip that I will carry with me the rest of my years:

8. Prepare.

"You have to come into the game prepared. You have to come into watching the game with your own game plan," Sabol said. "What are you going to look for? What are the keys to the game?"

It's a rule from scouting: Be prepared. Think ahead. Anticipate problems and possible solutions. If you pick up the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, you will see that one of the habits is "be pro-active." Do not wait for the ballgame on television to come to you. You can go to the ballgame, mentally, emotionally, pro-actively. You can be a better sports viewer than anyone on your block, anyone with your ZIP code.

Life is a competition. Be a champion.

Joel Achenbach is a reporter for the Washington Post.

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