They tell a story about Norm Van Brocklin, the former Oregon University and NFL quarterback (a member of pro football’s Hall of Fame) and later coach of the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Braves. Van Brocklin, who was nicknamed “the Dutchman,” was known by friend and foe alike for being–how should we say this?–extremely blunt.
He also had little respect for sportswriters, whom he regarded as parasites. During later life Van Brocklin suffered from several serious health problems, including a brain tumor. He died from a heart attack at the age of 57. Following surgery on his brain tumor, Van Brocklin told people, “It was a brain transplant. They gave me a sportswriter’s brain, to make sure I got one that hadn’t been used.”
During the time Van Brocklin coached the Falcons, he was the target of much media criticism, some of it intense and unfairly personal, and some of it, undeniably (with a Falcon record of 39-47-3), objective and deserved. After all, an NFL coach being criticized for a losing record comes with the territory.
After a game Van Brocklin was sitting in the hotel bar when a sports reporter–a writer who knew the Dutchman reasonably well and had always been on good terms with him–asked to join him. The coach was not in a particularly cheery mood (the Falcons had lost), but he invited him to sit.
Van Brocklin surprised the writer by making an observation: He said, “When you think about it, what the NFL does is really stupid. Football is a child’s game. Kids play it in school. They play it in school, and then they move on to other things, more serious things. But even though it’s a kid’s game, we continue playing it. How stupid is that?”
The sports reporter wasn’t sure where Van Brocklin was going with this until he reached across the table, grabbed the man by his tie, pulled his face next to his, and snarled, “But you wanna hear something that’s even more stupid than guys like us playing a kid’s game? Guys like YOU write about it.”
When we examine the evolution of television sports shows, we see a fairly clear trajectory. It started off with sports being treated almost as an “after-thought,” with a person or persons giving scores and game summaries. That was it. That was the extent of “sports coverage.” Those were innocent days, fun days. Sports was America’s playroom.
But over the years we’ve seen the rise of panel formats dripping with faux-locker room camaraderie–the ones that precede sporting events (think of the five braying jackasses who “discuss” football prior to NFL games on the Fox Network), where the panelists can’t stop howling with scripted, unrestrained laughter.
And it’s gotten worse. Not only have we seen sports coverage segue from an “after-thought” to a veritable laugh riot, but we’ve seen it further mutate into face-to-face conflict and controversy. Just as crime and violence get high ratings on the local news, conflict and controversy get high ratings on the sports shows. So that’s what it’s come to. A choice between scripted, make-believe post-adolescent frivolity or scripted, make-believe, incendiary conflict.
Which brings us to the Fox Sports Network’s newest entry: “Skip and Shannon: Undisputed.” It features loud, mindless, highly opinionated dialogue between ex-sports reporter Skip Bayless and ex-NFL player Shannon Sharpe, with the bright, attractive Joy Taylor wasted in the role of House Mother. The show is terrible.