Sundays with the Worldwide Leader in Agony

NFL pregame shows are the worst things on television and I can’t stop watching them. Countless hours of my life have been spent sitting in my living room thrown into fits of frustration, bewilderment, and at times utter disgust. I have never once said the words “good point” without drenching it in an ice bath of sarcasm. No matter the football pedigree an analyst has, they have never said something I found fascinating. Most of my friends and family know my disdain for the talking heads covering sports on TV, particularly those coming from the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network in Bristol, CT (ESPN, Inc). And many of those friends and family inform me repeatedly that I don’t have to watch it. My response to their counsel is always a muted and dimwitted, “shut up.” Because they’re entirely right. I know I don’t have to watch it. Why do I engage with something that I constantly ridicule?

There are multiple facets to the answer of that question, some of them even subconscious. Initially, I think about John Stewart’s The Daily Show and his first-rate derivative, John Oliver and his show Last Week Tonight. Their respective programs are loaded with wit, sarcasm, humor, perfectly timed F words, and a righteous backbone working in unison to create satirical poetry. I realize these people have a team of writers, editing to frame an argument, and at times luxurious hindsight, but nevertheless they’re smart people hilariously outfoxing targeted counterparts on social and political issues. It’s impressive to watch. Impressive because I know I could never be as skillfully shrewd. Giving a confident, intelligent and well informed argument is still the most commanding virtue a person can communicate, especially when you can be funny doing it. Intelligence is gratifying and all, but made even better when we get to use that intellect for satire. Because satire is really, really, fun.

Effective satire is dependent on being well informed and smart enough that you can translate that information to be mockingly funny. This is why Stewart and Oliver always have my attention, amusement, and envy. I flatly am not smart enough to be satirical about the issues they cover. You won’t hear me do quips about Iran. All I know about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is he likes uranium and khaki colored jackets. Although better spent, I don’t invest enough of my time absorbing these issues. But I do know sports. And I pay an inordinate amount of attention to the people that present these sports on television. I’ve found my frustration with them to be as compelling as the game itself. What’s my motivation for this focus? I guess you could say it’s simply the best opportunity I have to do satire with my friends on a weekly basis.

Why do I get so frustrated? I don’t know, do you get frustrated being in a pool on a summer holiday? A simple and refreshing dip quickly becomes a watery mosh pit, most of whom are hopped up on Fun-Dip and cocaine, flailing their limbs inconsiderably as you float into used band-aids. NFL pregame shows are an overcrowded pool on Memorial Day. They take our beloved football and submerge it in chemical piss water. There’s no reason to do this. It doesn’t need to be as crowded with gimmicky material as they make it. And the on-air personalities of ex-players and coaches are like teenage lifeguards. They’re ready and able to be courageous, but more often than not they sit there twirling their whistle. Why!? Sports aren’t complex. Sports aren’t rocket science. There is nothing about football in particular that would astonish any decent fan. So when I hear analysts on TV give us lazy analysis as though they believe (or maybe they’re told) I don’t know any better and therefore provide empty and prosaic positions on the matter, I find it offensive. I know and absorb the NFL about the same as any regular football loving fan, but if you’re watching TV dedicated to the NFL that isn’t actually the game, it means you’ve left the shallow end in search for some depth.

I’m not expecting to be treated like a genius who draws up plays on blackboards when nobody’s looking a la Good Will Hunting, but these producers and analysts evidently assume they’re at MIT and we’re only the janitors. We must understand…it’s not our fault.  We’re wicked smart. However, we’ve never played in the NFL. Even geniuses don’t know the idiosyncrasies of things they haven’t experienced. I already know a Quarterback needs to be “on the same page” as his receiver.  What I don’t necessarily know are the reasons why they wouldn’t be. Is it just preparation or is there more to it? What I’m saying here is I expect those that do know more than me – NFL analysts who played at the highest level – put in the work and provide scrutiny we may not have recognized. You can tell the guys that show up, evolve, study recent trends, and work hard at being on TV. That a lot of them don’t do this is insulting. And when I feel insulted by something I completely admit is relatively meaningless like this, my preferred response is mockery. So hey, ESPN, do you like apples?

For years my remarks were made to my roommate, Kyle. We’d go back and forth trading jabs at NFL shows on Sunday morning. This was fun. Sports banter, moving couches, and encouragement to get Chipotle are likely the best parts of having a roommate. Then I moved into my own place and believe me, nobody was there in the mornings (aww). Now, on Sundays in the Fall I text with the fervor of a 13 year old girl. My buddies and I have a group text so extensive I feel intense pressure to get my shots fired before it’s drowned out by a flood of others who also just heard Mike Ditka say words into a camera. So why do I watch? Despite all my explanation above, my answer is still admittedly a contradiction: I watch because the anger and frustration it causes me is SO DAMN FUNNY.

Some may be surprised I care this much about something so stupid. Most people wouldn’t regard me as a sports guy. I don’t really talk about them that often. Hit or miss, I like to tell jokes. I suppose it’s what I bring to the table (sometimes nauseatingly). And it’s tough to be universally funny about sports. Being funny is about taking smaller, unexpected, or unnoticed components and extrapolating them to larger, well understood concepts (oh and dick jokes. Those kill). If there are unnoticed components to things that require all of your attention like sports, it means they’re not understood. Jokes about things that aren’t understood are just bad jokes. Sports humor is a fart joke. Your butt making a noise is funny, but it doesn’t take much before it stinks like shit. Sports jokes have the expiration of a clown’s act. How often can you laugh at floppy shoes and a missing dick? In fact, I know this blog post won’t be as well received as others because a lot of my “followers” (I use that term loosely) aren’t football junkies. This writing is also a bunch of scattered justification with intangible arguments, although that’s basically what being a sports fan is all about.

I also realize sports are just a game with no bearing on what’s important in my life. I don’t ignore other fun things going on just to watch a game (thankfully the NFL is always king on Sunday so I don’t miss out on anything). If you want to talk about pigskin, hoops, or NASCAR (“we won’t appreciate 24 ’til he’s gone, but he aint never gonna be no Dale) I’ll do that all day, but it’s not a subject I persistently instigate. There’s only one time of day I am enslaved to sports commentary: a crisp fall weekend’s morn, with a pot of coffee, a healthy breakfast even though all I want is a box of donuts and a flat bed truck of bacon, and the TV broadcast featuring my greatest known enemy – Chris Berman – in all his self-aggrandizing sweaty comb over repulsiveness (No, he doesn’t bother me that much).

I really don’t want to be as cynical or snarky about ESPN and their NFL shows as I am. To be frank the NFL Network’s pregame is equally as atrocious and CBS’s show is basically an hour of your faucet dripping while being told every seven minutes that on the premiere of Person of Interest, THIS. TIME. IT’S. PERSONAL. They’re all bad for their own reasons, but ESPN makes for the easiest target. A target I didn’t always shoot at. ESPN is arguably why I love sports. I distinctly remember being on spring break when I was 8 years old and mesmerized by SportsCenter. It was the first time I really paid attention to its flagship show. When I started playing sports more seriously I watched it more frequently. When I got to college and shared a living room with other guys you turn the channel to ESPN just to have something on. It’s the default channel for avoiding judgment or the need to explain what you’re watching. If you don’t know what I mean, get caught napping during a rerun of Felicity by your buddies and see what happens. So ESPN was nearly always on, and that’s when the seed of disdain began to grow. Watching it becomes like playing beer pong during a party. At first you’re intrigued. Then you get bored. Then you say you don’t want to play anymore, followed by guys accusing you of being the thing you’re ironically leaving the table to go pursue. That’s when you realize you’ve wasted hours playing a game with dudes that gave you the same odds of meeting women as you had just standing around circle jerking each other. So as you can see, too much ESPN isn’t good for anybody.

After a while I started recognizing all the network personalities and what their on air habits are. Following my third viewing of the exact same SportsCenter before class, those habits go from noticed, to pronounced…to despised. I know what you’re asking. Why would anyone watch any program three times in a row? Ummm, I’m pathetic…? Oh, and collegeee! It was in those years of too much downtime when I began to discern how much noise these analysts made and how little they actually had to say.

When you’re in your twenties you want everything to spark inspiration. You want to see passion and conviction in everything around you. You’re an idealist because you’ve hardly been challenged by reality, so for a little while you have a hard time accepting why most people want simplicity. Life is complex. Not everyone wants their sporting news to be too. My life is pretty simple right now. Probably simpler than it should be. I haven’t been able to understand that it saves time to be neutral on unimportant things. This conjured up philosophy is obviously much larger than an NFL pregame TV show, but it certainly applies to why it bothers me. It thrives most on a model that caters to simplicity. It’s a David Guetta album: very little imagination, very few changes, and tons of copies sold. ESPN is a Disney owned company. I should expect that a network owned by a company that prominently produces PG rated material for mass appeal wants their sports commentary to be PG rated for mass appeal. This creates a me-problem they don’t need to apologize for, but it won’t stop me from my disapproval. I get mad at ESPN for being “too Disney” when that’s exactly what they are. They offer Bud Light analysis: quantity over quality where the only tasting note is “crisp.”

I like controversy and eccentricity, but that creates some messy division. ESPN doesn’t want messy division. They want opinions to be like assholes, not in that everyone has one, but that we try to keep them as clean as possible. This might be why they give us very bland, very amiable analysis. But I prefer my asshole to be dirty – wait, what? – I mean, I want opinions to be cleverly unpolished and idiosyncratic. These are not characteristics I’d give anyone covering sports on TV, particularly ESPN. Even the most outlandish ex-players and coaches with wild personalities sit there on camera and say things like “this is the National Football League. These guys are athletes. You’ve gotta be better than that.” Oh really? Because before you said that I thought someone missing a tackle wasn’t a bad thing.

My hope is that one day we demand more from the sports network with the greatest resources. That they offer insight beyond the obvious and present it in straightforward roundtable styled discussion, without crowding it in shticks like Ebenezer Ditka. Do they not think we can handle it? Despite paying these leagues billions of dollars to put their product on TV, do they not have the access we think they do to unearth more interesting information? Or are they really okay with analysts actually starting a response with, “Oh, I don’t know about all that”? They have very talented people running shows that I’d probably like very much if I met them at a backyard BBQ, but on the air they toe the company line. What’s worse is right when I applaud some of them for being abrasive on coarse topics, ESPN brass makes them ghosts (and then they go to HBO). These days the fearless always go elsewhere, or they stay put, but you question how much support they have.

One of the best analysts ESPN has is Kirk Herbstreit and he works on the best show they have, College Gameday. I know they cover more teams which in turn means more stories, but that’s not what keeps it so fresh. Herbstreit and company legitimately talk to you like you’re a football fan on a show that challenges itself to cover completely different topics and segments every week. What a novel concept! The show is not without gimmicks, but it is without irreverence. Kirk isn’t implored to do anecdotes and metaphors in the voice of James Brown (Oh, Herm) and the show doesn’t run the exact same “Top Ten Playoff Rants” footage every time a coach says “fuck.” College Gameday is everything I want sports analysis to be. That landscape is a challenge, but the show always excels. And when they do gimmicks they at least have the decency to acknowledge how ridiculous it is. When it comes to the actual analysis they allow viewers to watch straightforward discussion and debate. They don’t deliver their content with a ticking clock or style their talking points to some asinine designation like “Hot or Not” or “Love it or Shove it.” I’m honestly waiting for an NFL pregame show to do a “Hand job or Blow job” bit at some point –

“I don’t know Ron, are you gonna give this one a hand job or a blow job?”

“Sal, I have to go hand job here. This team has burned me one too many times and it’s stayed with me. Their defense is suspect. I go hand job until they prove to me they’ve cleared up these issues.”

These kinds of charades are everywhere with NFL TV coverage. God forbid we get our information in styles not likened to a carnival. Although that’s somewhat fitting given that ESPN’s analysts are dummies in a ventriloquist act. After a few paint drying points are delivered we’re then taken to a commercial break where apparently the prerequisite to be an outro voice-over guy is to sound like you’re currently shitting on a toilet (“Cyyyoming up next”).

And what makes me so pathetic about all of it, given my contempt, I’ll be right there on my couch on a pleasant Sunday morning watching ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown. If you haven’t already figured it out, this show carries the baton of bull shit. I don’t love the others, but this one is hosted by a bombastic bamboozler and has the audacity to believe it needs 3+ hours to tell us 6 things about the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys. They’ve been on the air for 11 minutes and I have 14 text messages. I better grab another cup of coffee. It’s going to be a snarky morning.

“You know, you don’t have to watch it?” Yes I do. Yes, I do.

Bonus Coverage with the Many Voices of ESPN: In Their Words (Not Really)

Trent Dilfer: Playing Quarterback in the National Football League is the most difficult job in the Milky Way galaxy. So many factors. Do they have the intangibles, the mental fortitude, the pocket dexterity, the athletic subconscious, a strong credit rating, a political action committee, the cure for Ebola, and most importantly, (tears form) do they have the heart?

Herm Edwards: Players just want to have fuuuun. They want to go out. Have a good time. Get some ice cream. Some chunky monkey. But they gotta know coach is gonna want them on the practice field bright and early. They gotta know now. You want to be on the playground, you gotta wash your hands before goin’ in the cookie jar! My dad always told me, son, you want to have fun when the sun goes down, then you better have your shoes tied for breakfast. You want to count to four you better declare a thumb war. It’s simple now.

Steve Young: Obviously he showed great poise and pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis out there tonight.

Merril Hoge: C’mon now it’s not that hard. Get everything set. You bring the wide end in motion across the front line from right to left. Then pull the tight end up through the gap. Then bring the other end over the center through the hole. Repeat this 4 more times and you’ve tied yourself a nice Merril Hoge quintuple Windsor.

Ron Jaworksi: I’ve exhausted every term in the book for Quarterback play, so now I just make them up. After watching 72 hours of film in the past 24 hours, I’ve recognized he has great Eye Manipulation. The safety bites on the fake, but as the pocket collapses, note his feet management and perfect sense of ball releaseability. That’s phenomenal blind side alertness and sack evasion.

Ray Lewis: God. Wanted. Me. To. Win. That. Last. Super. Bowl. You see, it’s not about what I wanted. It’s about what his plan is for me. And my tea!-mmates. As a leader, you’ve got to show them what it is to be a champion. It’s about overcoming adversity. You gonna face challenges. Lose games. Get beat. Commit double murder. But if you profess your faith in God. If you act enough like a martyr…nobody will forget you killed two people.

Mark Schlereth: I’m probably a nice guy, but just a world class tool. I got a cameo on the show Ballers and it made perfect sense. However real comedy  to me is nut shots and Grown Ups 2. Remember when Ed Hardy shirts were topical for 11 months? I still wear them. I’ve looked exactly the same for a decade.

Damien Woody: They ask me to provide commentary on SportsCenter after 14 other people say they can’t do it.

Darren Woodson: Me too. (Not pictured)

Jerome Bettis: I’m terrible at being on TV, but somehow have been doing it since retirement. My playing nickname also suits me as an analyst, since everything I say is about as interesting as a school bus. I don’t know why people are surprised I’m not good at this since I’ve already proven I can barely even say the words “heads” or “tails” clearly on camera. I also don’t know much about football since my entire playing career involved reading a Guard and Tackle and eating chunky soup.

Trey Wingo: I do a great job hosting NFL Live and I know an obscene amount about the NFL, but my role makes me give most of the talking time to people who don’t try.

Teddy Bruschi: Remember when I had a stroke in my 30’s and nobody asked questions as to why?

Mike Golic: Will Aaron Rodgers win the MVP again this year? We’ll see. He certainly has a pretty good chance to, but there could be other players that can win it as well. We don’t know. Do I think he will? I mean he can. Others will say he won’t. You’re entitled to your own opinion. He’ll certainly have his competition, but OH BY THE WAY, he’s pretty good himself too. But again, everybody’s gonna have their own opinion. Which is fine, you’re entitled to it. That’s what people do. They think and decide for themselves. Which is fine. So we’ll see. (Disclaimer: I like Golic as a person. Not as an analyst.)

The team at Sunday NFL Countdown:

Chris Berman (Boom), Tom Jackson (TJ), Mike Ditka (Ditka), Keyshawn Johnson (Key), Cris Carter (CC),

Boom: Welcome to Sunday NFL Countdown! We’re with the coach, CC, Key, and uhh, gee I don’t know, how long we been at this now Tom? In our 28th year together, Tom Jackson, folks. How are ya TJ?

TJ: Long time, Boom. Long time.

Boom: It sure has my friend. And I look forward to many more.

both are fully erect under the desk

Ditka: Boomer, I don’t know if I’m out of touch these days, and maybe I’m just old fashioned, but whatever happened to a good Chinamen’s shoe shine? But hey, let’s talk football. You want to win the super bowl, you get yourself a head bashing, skull crushing fullback, but hey,  I’m just old school (and tone deaf). Things sure have changed. Say, whatever happened to a good old fashioned extramarital affair!

Key: Boom, I think we all can agree I’m about as cool and relevant as a 1997 Ford Mustang. Driving down the highway thinking anybody still cares, but for the most part nobody does.

CC: Who wants to see how emotional I can get on camera this year!? C’mon man!

TJ: Mmm. Yeah CC. Get ‘em.

Boom: Well obviously we are ready to go here, in yet another season, of NFL Countdown. This is the biggest thing we do here at ESPN, as is everything I’ve done, circlin’ the wagons…

TJ: Long time Boom…

Boom: …but before we get any more riled up, I want to acknowledge the sadness felt…for the death…of Wellington Mara. He died 10 years ago at the perfectly appropriate age of 89, but I remain shocked, and heartfelt. His impact, was tremendous. When we come back, we’ll talk a little rumblin’ stumblin’ Bills football? LeSean McCoy has arrived in Buffalo. Will he be better than my old time favorites you all know and love – Cookie Gilchrist, Wray Carlton, and Terry ‘the seed spiller’ Miller? Stay with us.

TJ: Long time Boom, Long time.

BermanDitka

Guest Appearance from NBC

Hines Ward: I sure like to smile, even though I’m a big piece of shit.

…Who Dey!

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