At some juncture in the last few years, perhaps when a CBS camera seemed to scare Pleasant Colony in the gate at the Belmont in 1981, or when NBC wired Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden for sound during the '80 Orange Bowl, or when ABC dragooned Bear Bryant in 1982 for one of its umpteenth sideline interviews, it became all too evident that TV and sports are headed for a collision. Consider the elements: on one hand, the integrity of play and the right to privacy for athletes and coaches; on the other, TV's technological wizardry and insatiable curiosity. When does reportage become intrusion? That's a question that ought to be addressed now, not when USFL quarterbacks have cameras in their helmets or Cale Yarborough reports his blood pressure to CBS at 210 mph in the Daytona 500.
This already has been a year of borderline intrusion. CBS made chitchat with Yarborough at Daytona as he was entering the third turn of the pace lap at 85 mph, seconds before getting the green. Never mind that the conversation made for television vérité or that Yarborough won the race. His concentration had to be affected. At Indianapolis, where mechanics have been known to spend thousands of dollars to remove every last pound possible from a 500 race car, this year owner Roger Penske agreed to place a six-pound ABC minicam just behind the right shoulder of Al Unser Sr. and of Rick Mears.
This also has been the year of the USFL sideline interview, a manifestation of a creeping disease we might call Player Distraction Syndrome. Why ABC's Tim Brant, an excellent reporter, can't simply tell us that Bronco the halfback has a pulled groin muscle without interrupting Bronco himself is the $64 question. Sideline interviews are like a lottery. You wade through 20,000 words of drivel for a one-line winner. Finally, let's not overlook the World Invitational High Dive Championship on ABC in May. As daredevils climbed to a specially miked platform the size of a postage stamp 170 feet in the sky, announcer Ken Sitzberger asked them such inanities as "How d'ya feel up there, pal? A little scared?"
The temptation to put cameras or microphones where they shouldn't be will grow stronger each season. The sheer speed of technological change guarantees it. In the early '60s Tony Verna, then a sports producer and director for CBS, who created the instant replay in 1963, predicted the introduction of videocassettes, the widespread use of satellites to transmit live events and the development of the steadycam, a camera that would move without shaking. These all came to pass in the '70s. In his prophetic 1970 book, Playback, Verna foresaw cameras in Indy cars by 1990. They arrived in '81. Verna now forecasts baseballs, footballs and hockey pucks embedded with signaling seeds that cameras will track electronically. Others predict that wide-angle replays, shot by a camera in the quarterback's helmet, will show how the defense looked just before he threw the interception. Players will be able to wear button-size transceivers through which on-field interviews could be conducted. Language will have to improve because there will be no place to hide.
All this could make for great television, but it could also create a kind of exhibitionism within sport. If there's a fan who hasn't felt vaguely uneasy when TV sticks its nose into a basketball huddle at courtside, please stand up. Those who agree with New Jersey General Coach Chuck Fairbanks' view on sideline interviews—"There's a mystique there and I don't know whether the camera should enter it," he says—raise your right hand. Hear! Hear! for viewers who feel uncomfortable seeing pro golfers interviewed between shots.
Let's adopt some standards before high tech gets out of hand. Rule 1: No mikes or cameras where their presence can even remotely affect performance. This means players, coaches, four-legged beasts and foot-to-the-floorboard stockers would not be interviewed or distracted once an event has begun. Whether they grant their consent wouldn't matter. Rule 2: Performers are entitled to privacy in the arena in situations in which they can reasonably expect to receive it. If John McEnroe berates a chair umpire so vehemently that fans at courtside hear him, he's fair game for TV's boom microphones. But, if Billy Martin chews out an umpire beyond earshot of the crowd, his curses should remain forever private.
Before long, quarterbacks' helmets may include cameras that give us their view of the D.