This is SportsCenter?

The stadium scene.
March 31 2004 7:13 PM

This Is SportsCenter?

The decline and fall of ESPN's franchise.

On ESPN's reality show, Dream Job, aspiring sportscasters auditioned for an anchor job on SportsCenter,which is more than the network's flagship news and highlight show. It is the sports show whose late-night edition, between 1992 and 1997, achieved iconic status in the hands of anchors Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann. Dream Job was something of an ordeal to watch. The contestants read too fast or too haltingly, exclaimed inappropriately, got snagged on Slavic hockey names, and painfully tested look-at-me catchphrases and snarky tonal flourishes. It's strange that ESPN added Dream Job to its lineup since they already have a show in which aspirants compete, with an irritating surfeit of eagerness and theatrical sarcasm, to capture the singular vibe of Dan and Keith. It's called SportsCenter.

You can't criticize today's SportsCenter anchors for not living up to the legend of Dan and Keith. Indeed, these days neither Dan nor Keith is quite living up to the legend of Dan and Keith. Dan Patrick does a solid job as the solo anchor of the 6 p.m. SportsCenter, and Keith Olbermann has his own current events talk show on basic cable's perennially unwatched news network, MSNBC. The chemistry the two had together is a rare, elusive thing, which why it is such a debacle that ESPN allows its current first-string SportsCenter cast—mostly Steve Berthiaume, Linda Cohn, John Anderson, and Scott Van Pelt—to strive, night after night, to recapture that chemistry through brute force.

A good place to start in understanding the deft teamwork of Dan and Keith is the 1997 book they wrote together, The Big Show: A Tribute to ESPN's SportsCenter. The Big Show is not only a big, sloppy story of a certain 20-year chunk of American sports journalism, it is a faithful and funny document of the authors' on-air approach. Dan and Keith were simultaneously reverent and ironic toward the sports world and its history. They loved the old athletes and the old sportscasters, but instead of citing them in studious on-air footnotes, they used them in an increasingly fragmentary and hysterical game of tag-team free association. As The Big Show reminds us, Olbermann would tweak the clichés of sports injury lists by wise-cracking, "He's 'day to day'—we're all day to day." If a highlight video showed "players or fans who do not seem as happy as they should be" after a big play, he might reach beyond sports and offer a deadpan Monty Python reference—"And there was much rejoicing"—to punctuate the visual irony.

In contrast to this daring arbitrariness, the current anchors fall back on straight-up impersonation and on catchphrases that are stale the moment they're first uttered. SportsCenter veteran Linda Cohn, for example, peppers basketball highlights with an array of catchphrases that reflects an apparent front-office directive that she must, at all costs, have catchphrases. And so, when a player makes a steal, she says, "He's a thief," and when somebody gets open and hits a three-point field goal, she says he's "responding to a good visual." It's important to remind yourself that she has prepared these catchphrases ahead of time.

Often paired with Cohn is Steve Berthiaume, a fit-looking fellow with enviable composure and a classic nasal delivery. Berthiaume's specialty is an impersonation of Marv Albert, which is sports broadcasting's single deadest cliché. There are SportsCenters where nearly every time Berthiaume has the opportunity to call a three-pointer, he does it in his version of Albert's three-point call, a playboy's whispering of "F'r thray." But Berthiaume's most irritating bid for Dan-and-Keith immortality is his impersonation, during a dunk or a home run or a crushing tackle, of Al Pacino's Tony Montana from Scarface: "Say hello to my li'l friend!" John Buccigross, who mercifully doesn't do SportsCenter very often, is somewhat more incomprehensible: "John LeClair is clutch, and clutch is everything in life." Huh?

Where Cohn and Berthiaume and Buccigross are in charge of new catchphrases, Scott Van Pelt and John Anderson are in charge of the attitude, which in their hands becomes a combination of hip-hop boosterism and sarcasm. Anderson falls into sports broadcasting's modern-day weakness, which is sounding like an insufferable wiseass. Indeed several anchors (Cohn and Berthiaume, as well as underlings like Neil Everett) deliver their lines with a sarcastic undertone permanently threaded into their voices. Anderson shares with Linda Cohn a tendency to add to this wiseass voice a demonic open-mouthed grin, as if they're waiting for the comic spirit of Dan and Keith to breathe the old magic through their lips, which never happens.

Dan and Keith infused SportsCenter with a knowingness (while miraculously avoiding smugness) that turned the show into a kind of meta-history of sports. In the thickly hyped world of sports television, this layer of irony was a valuable thing. In contrast, the current roster of Dan-and-Keith wannabes offers all the critical distance, and all the journalistic detachment, of a Gatorade commercial. Scott Van Pelt, who in many ways is the least obnoxious of the current anchors, most vividly reflects this tendency, especially during basketball season. Van Pelt, though he is a tall blond golf reporter with the kind of tiny fashion eyeglasses you see on people who sell fashion eyeglasses, regularly lapses into "street" slang. He regularly yelps "y'all" and "my man." (As in, "Hey, Otis … !")

Another unjournalistic tic that has crept into the SportsCenter repertoire, and especially Van Pelt's, is calling players by their nicknames. You've forfeited a large amount of your psychological edge as a journalist when your normal way of referring to mega-talented serial reprobate Rasheed Wallace, who was run out of Portland despite being the Trailblazers' best player, is " 'Sheed." (ESPN: The Magazine is written almost entirely in this mode. Every story is told from the standpoint of the players—in overripe hip-hop slang—and the more self-absorbed and destructive the player's behavior, the more viciously his critics are misrepresented.) Maybe it's just that Patrick and Olbermann represented an era in which hipness meant detachment, and today's with-it young anchors represent an era in which hipness means sycophancy.

Pro basketball offers a telling test case in the decline of SportsCenter because it is at once the most heavily hyped and the most decrepit major sport. (Pro hockey, bled dry by overexpansion, is sub-major.) Though commercials for its music and merchandising tie-ins batter the sports-viewing public, the NBA is hemorrhaging fans as scoring collapses. But instead of conveying the reality that the NBA is in trouble, SportsCenter echoes the advertising hype. The nightly Top 10 Plays—which could offer a connoisseur's appreciation of the great improvisational stuff that still happens in pro ball—typically regurgitates the same overdone moves seen in video-game commercials. After 30 years of slam-dunk competitions—and after Michael Jordan killed the contest for all time in 1987 with two unfathomable dunks—elaborate breakaway dunking has all the spontaneity of a waltz. These are the static, overscripted moves that the NBA has doltishly made its selling point, and SportsCenter has slavishly followed its lead. As John Buccigross might say, as Pravda was to the old Soviet Union, SportsCenter is to pro basketball.

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