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Is the End At Hand? TV sports' puzzling injustices and cruel ironies invite despair--but leave a glimmer of hope

Life is unfair. God is a cipher. Fate is a riddle, wrapped in a
mystery, inside an enigma, rolled in a burrito. How else to
explain that Stephen Hawking can't speak, and Dan Dierdorf can?
That Muhammad Ali has lost the use of his smile muscles, but Bob
Knight retains full frowning capability? That ESPN2 has a ticker
that never stops, and you have one that does?

Suffice it to say that life can be perverse. But is it hopeless?
Only if you consider that Keith Jackson's television career ends
on Jan. 4, but Jim Rome's is just getting started. Or that
space-age instant replay technology is used for "Stupid Pet
Tricks" but not for NFL officiating. Or that something called the
Presidents Cup recently turned up on TV, but was a golf
tournament, not a fixture of Bill Clinton's wardrobe. So the
nation has recently suffered through two torturous television

But why? Why do cruel ironies--and inexplicable injustices--abound
in this world? Twelve people will see Nagano, the new film from
Olympic auteur Bud Greenspan, while The Waterboy plays on nine
screens at your neighborhood Hexoplex. Michael Jordan no longer
lingers forever in the air, but Michael Jordan cologne does. This
is what you call having the worst of both worlds.

So we try to see the glass as half full: When Kevin Costner
appears, as he did last Saturday, in an NBC golf tournament in
which celebrities try to win a Lexus sedan by getting a hole in
one, we tell ourselves, At least he is not at work on a new

But such irrational optimism only goes so far. For instance, we
know the Lord works in mysterious ways--primarily, through Reggie
White--but what can possibly justify the idea of last Saturday
night's $500-a-ticket pickup basketball game on Showtime, the
proceeds of which originally were to go to needy NBA players and
charities such as UNICEF? As Conan O'Brien rightly points out,
these smug, greedy bastards have no business putting their horny
hands anywhere near such money. Shame on you, UNICEF!

All of which is to suggest that the apocalypse is nigh. The
Biblical signs are everywhere. A six-legged turkey recently
appeared on Fox (it was John Madden's annual Thanksgiving
creation), even as a six-legged turkey was appearing on ABC (it
was the cast of Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place). Television
viewers wonder: Can it be long now before that giant cartoon
Monty Python foot comes out of the clouds to squash us all?

As humankind approaches the end of the 20th century, it looks for
signs of hope. Where? In the one place it knows to look: the
television set. (This is only appropriate. After all, we are
through the looking glass here, people.)

Just when you're ready to give in to despair, our universal human
yearning pays off. A prophet arrives from another time, bringing
tidings of comfort and joy. Dick Van Patten had been only
sporadically seen on television for the past two decades when
suddenly, without warning--on Wednesday, Dec. 16, at 3:30 p.m.
EST--TV turned into Van Pattenpalooza. The powerfully comforting
and fatherly actor was, for no apparent reason, hosting The World
Series of Poker on ESPN and playing Tom Bradford in an Eight Is
Enough rerun on something called the PAX network. Yes, PAX.

Dick Van Patten had come in peace--and, evidently, a hairpiece--to
reassure a troubled world. There really was peace. In fact, for
one shining moment, he was the only Dickie V on television.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO [Drawing of man with microphone looming over man in wheelchair]