Everyone who watches too much televised sports can remember the moment Rams quarterback Jim Everett attacked Jim Rome in 1994. The talk host had repeatedly battered the QB with the taunt "Chris," linking him anatomically with the female tennis legend, until Everett blew a fuse and started tearing apart the set. It was a seminal moment for sports television. For the first time, an in-studio interview had turned physically hostile. Even if some believed it was a publicity stunt to boost attention for then-nascent ESPN2, there was little doubt that a Rubicon had been crossed. From that point on, TV sports talk grew louder and more antagonistic.
ESPN axed Rome soon after, a spasm of ethical sanity it has no doubt regretted for years. Undaunted, Rome sashayed over to Fox Sports, where his popularity soared even as he made public his angst over the increasingly moronic and morally repugnant tone of sports commentary. Well, consider the circle complete because Rome is back on ESPN with a new show, Rome Is Burning, which debuted Tuesday night.
With his sharp suits and Hans Gruber facial hair, Rome has a slicker TV presence than the rumpled newspaper journos who appear on the network. His radio background allows him to produce a word-per-minute rate higher than anyone since Walter Winchell, with the possible exception of that FedEx pitchman in the '80s. The result, parodied in Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday, is obnoxious, abrasive, and strangely alluring.
Rome lives and works in Los Angeles, or "SoCal" as his radio "clones" insist, and the West Coast-centric nature of his radio show (and prior Fox gig, The Last Word) is a welcome counterweight to the pervasive East Coast slant of the sports commentariat. Rome's first guest on last night's show was Keyshawn Johnson, who may play in the East but is LaLa all the way, right down to the Lakers jersey he wore on air. Rome has toned down the incestuous nature of his radio show, where regular callers banter in a shared language indecipherable to casual listeners, for national distillation. But he remained true to his clones at RIB's end, when a few "voice mails" were played. The often hilarious byplay between Rome and his Limbaughesque hard-core fan base is at the core of his appeal, and it was nice to see a little of that, no matter how forced, make it to television.
At times, Rome seems to be more mature than the frat-house tone that pervades his competition. He castigated Colorado Rockies pitcher Todd Jones for his recent comments about the unacceptability of gays in the majors, reassuring the player that "gangs of gays are not going to force themselves on you in the locker room." Rome then welcomed Billy Bean, a former San Diego Padre who is out and proud, into the studio for a strong interview, during which Bean ripped Sandy Koufax for reacting so negatively to a gossip item that questioned his sexual orientation.
But then Romey undercut his alleged growth by insisting guest Mark Grace of the Arizona Diamondbacks define the term "slumpbuster" (baseball lingo for a player who attempts to halt a downward spiral by sleeping with an unattractive woman). And Rome wouldn't be Rome without his hipster stylings, which he calls "takes." Iowa State coach Larry Eustachy didn't merely slip in his battle with alcoholism; he was caught "sipping Natty Lights and licking on a few coeds." There are still long stretches when Rome would seem to fit right into the blend of crudity and borderline sexual harassment that pervades Fox's Best Damn Sports Show Period and numerous radio gabfests.
Indeed, for an ESPN show, Rome Is Burning carries a distinct Fox flavor. Guest "panelists" such as Jim Lampley of Fox Sports Radio and Dennis Haysbert, who portrays the president on Fox's 24, had me checking my remote. And when Lampley blamed ex-Alabama coach Mike Price's downfall on the easy availability of pornography in hotel rooms, I thought I had accidentally switched over to The O'Reilly Factor. (To his credit, Rome immediately scoffed at Lampley's notion.)
The show isn't without its problems. If you listen to Rome's radio program, the TV version is mere redundancy (a problem afflicting many of the columnists who appear on television as well). And good as Romey can be, it means ESPN is foisting yet another hour of opinioneering down our throats. Just when you thought the sports world had achieved an intolerable level of stridency and bluster, here comes another voice to rattle your eardrums. Case in point: The premiere of RIB ran against the network's other big talker, Pardon the Interruption, which was playing on ESPN2.
Rome Is Burning made its debut hours after Bob Ryan, the dean of ESPN shout-a-thons, was suspended by the Boston Globe for expressing a desire to "smack" Jason Kidd's wife, Joumana, on a local TV show. If an experienced, reasonable guy like Ryan is so affected by the atmosphere of false bravado these kinds of shows foster that he threatens violence against a woman, then Rome, whose motto is "talkin' smack and makin' jack," better insist his player interviews be conducted via satellite. Otherwise we may see athletes knocking over tables at a record rate.