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Original Issue

The Shock of the Now

An open letter to a network going places no one has gone before, thank goodness

Dear ESPN:

IN THE middle of summer, while other networks focus on fluff and filler, you are on a mission to determine the most NOW athlete.

You must abandon this quest, as noble as it may seem. If I may fashion a phrase as fresh and smart as your adjectival use of the word now: Just Don't Go There.

Trust me, your fans will forgive you for leaving them in suspense about whether LaDanian Tomlinson is more NOW than Maria Sharapova. The public knows—even if you forgot in the creative convulsion that birthed such NOW-downs as Shaquille O'Neal versus Michael Phelps and LeBron James versus Kelly Slater—that July is about soft news: what isn't happening in sports. Last week Tony La Russa said he wasn't feuding with Albert Pujols; Pujols said he wasn't feuding with La Russa; and Seve Ballesteros buttinskied in to say, Hey, I'm not attempting suicide over here. It's a silly season, not a time to ponder who Derek Jeter has "reportedly been linked with." If you must have drama, rerun one of those lushly scored Chris Connelly spots about a tyke who regenerates a mistakenly amputated limb, then, as if that weren't traumatic enough, is forced to have lunch with Stephon Marbury.

There are precedents on your own network for making a course correction when your journalistic integrity has flown you too close to the molten truth of sports. The Rush Limbaugh experiment and the "seasonlong" Barry Bonds reality show leap to my mind, despite therapy and psychopharmaceuticals. The multitude who will demand to know if A-Rod out-NOWs Peyton Manning will be equal to the mob that swarmed your gates a year ago, when you canceled the Bonds show. Do what you did then: Say you stopped because it was way too successful—then move on.

I understand why you would pit Tom Brady against David Ortiz, or Tiger Woods against Matt Leinart. In junior high we had a most NOW student contest that was popular until the Beatles came along. Still, I went to your website to check the details. There, among participles dangling like front-porch wind chimes, I learned SportsCenter will air Who's Now, in which "viewers will help ESPN determine the ultimate sports star by considering on-field success and off-field buzz."

A series like this, I realize, doesn't come together overnight; I'm guessing that practically two nights were consumed in its creation. If I'm getting this right, you divided the nation (the sports world?) into eight (four?) divisions, every one of them, as far as I can tell, named for Michael Jordan. Fortunately, this does not affect whether Serena Williams is NOWier than Steve Nash.

Your panel of experts is more vital. Based on such factors as who was not on vacation, you selected three Nestor Chylaks of NOW-ness. At rehearsals, I've heard, panelists received mild electric shocks whenever they said either apples or oranges. It worked! Now 12,000 to 14,000 times a day, one can view a kind of Algonquin Round Table minus the tiresome wit. If folks dislike the panel, no problem: Internet voting, which comes next, is weighted so heavily, it renders the experts moot. People say Internet voting isn't scientific, but it can tell a lot about America. For example, the daylong deluge that lifted Jeff Gordon past Barry Bonds said something about just how many unemployed white people there are out there.

The series isn't perfect. By giving credit for buzzed-about affairs, it unfairly penalizes the competent adulterer. Still, if not halted, it will leave us with dangerous information. I compare this to the moment, last November, when Britney Spears's limo door opened, but she hadn't swiveled to the right quite yet. We are on the verge of knowledge that some of us may be able to handle.

Leaders of the past, such as J. Edgar Hoover and George W. Bush, understood that not everyone needs to know everything. When Hoover ran the FBI, Willie Mays was often the most NOW athlete, but Hoover kept mum (although he surely told the guy he was reportedly linked with). The data the series provides could reach the wrong hands. Already on the Internet one can find diagrams showing how to rig the most NOW contest so that Bobby Cox wins, and last week there was international cellphone chatter about Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Red Schoendienst. The potential for chaos is awesome.

Pull the plug, ESPN. This is too hot for any of us to handle.

Sincerely, Charlie Leerhsen

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