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Original Issue

Look Out for the Bull!

The prattle emanating from sports talk shows is polluting the air waves

CALLER? CALLER? Can you turn down your radio?

Good. Now, can you hang up that phone?

Good. Now, I've got something to say. I quit. I can't go on. I've had to fill four hours of airtime a day, five days a week, talking about sports. This station fills 24 hours a day, seven days a week, talking about sports. We have beaten every issue into hotel-ashtray sand, yet we will talk about this stuff again next week. If one more person asks me if I think Tonya Harding did it, I am going to get his address, drive calmly to his house and remove his larynx with a ball retriever.

Don't you sec? It is all bullspit. I don't know any more than you. I have the newspaper in front of me, same as you. A lot of the people in my line of work were second-string punt-coverage guys and country and western disc jockeys. Most of us can't get credentialed to the International Darts Festival. You ask me, "Do you think Tonya Harding did it?" And, just once, I would like to say, "I don't have a clue. I'm not within a toll call of a clue on that. I've never spoken to Tonya Harding or even overhauled a transmission with her. You might as well ask me if I know any really great lunch spots in Gdansk." But just the same, I give you 13 minutes of prattle. Hey, I've got four hours to fill here.

The truth is, America is getting a B.S. degree in sports, and the b.s. part is spilling in through your car radio and out from under your big-screen TV. A nation that was once full of doers is now a nation full of dialers.

Three years ago there were a fistful of all-sports radio stations in the U.S. Now there are 78. There were only a few sports-roundtable TV shows. Now nearly every big city has one. ESPN has, what, 17? It has gotten this sick: You can even participate in a live call-in sports show while you are on an airplane.

And passengers on the left side of the cabin will notice the Grand Can—I'm on the air? The Phillies suck!

"We have become a land of b.s. and sound bites," says CBS basketball analyst Billy Packer. "It's all diarrhea of the mouth."

This sports talk is doing bad things. Take three sportswriter friends of mine. Ordinarily you could spray WD-40 on their appetizers and they wouldn't arch an eyebrow. Yet whenever they appeared on a roundtable segment of ESPN's NFL Prime Monday last fall, they all became Morton Downey Jr., yelling, sneering and calling people names. What matters is not the most-considered opinion. What matters is the loudest opinion. Or, better yet, the last opinion before the beer ad.

On the Information Superhighway the only sure way to keep from winding up as roadkill is to be the loudest, the dirtiest or the meanest. It's the New McCarthyism. The Everybody Here in the Studio Is Cool and Everybody Else Is a Jerk school of broadcasting.

"It has distorted all of the things that we should be getting out of sports," says Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. "Nobody ever wins a game anymore; somebody else blew it."

And it doesn't matter who gets ripped, as long us somebody gets ripped. A talk-show host friend of mine calls me up every once in a while and says, "Give me something to rip him with today."

"Something to rip who with?"


Do you really think you're getting inside stuff from guys like us? Four years ago in Tuscaloosa, Ala., some radio talk-show hosts crawled all over Alabama football coach Bill Curry, insisting that Auburn had whipped his butt in recruiting. Before long, discontented Alabama alumni, further incensed by what they were hearing on the radio, finally got Curry fired. Three years later those players recruited by Curry helped win the national championship.

In many cases the stations with sports talk shows also own the rights to broadcast the games of local teams, which means the stations could lose big bucks if Joe Talkshowhost makes Charlie Generalmanager angry. At one Los Angeles radio station this memo was distributed to on-air talent: "A reminder to be 'friendly' to our local teams, especially our flagships. There should be no bad-mouthing of these teams and if a caller or guest instigates such talk...our talk-show hosts...should carefully change the subject or move on to something else."

But forget the hosts for a minute. Have you ever met any of the callers? Most of these guys spend their days holding down couch springs. Kentucky basketball coach Rick Pitino says they're "basically frustrated at home, can't get a date, don't do well at their jobs and are basically at the nadir of their lives." In other words, if things got any worse for them, they would host their own shows.

"I've got a new policy," Packer says. "When I'm on a show and I get asked about a player I haven't seen yet, I just say, 'Sorry, I really don't have the background to answer that question." "

Sounds like a movement. Now I have to get all the other hosts and all their guests and all the callers to agree. Then I would really be doing something to clean up the air.