Sunday, February 28, 2010

Turn Out the Torch, Time to Move the Party

Google told me Kevin Martin was only 43. I'd have guessed 50. Never mind, the Canadian curler still rates my pick as the star of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games anyhow. I won't hold his young whippersnapperdom against him.

Martin, who has been the dominant player (if that's really the right word) in his sport for well over a decade, won his first Olympic gold medal last night. I'd say his smiling face pretty much summarized why all the money, mindless petty bureaucracy, time and trouble of any Olympics are well worth putting up and putting up with. Watching a career fulfilled is a rewarding experience for the audience as well as the athlete.

For a good many American sports fans, the Vancouver Games will be known as the curling Olympics, and we have NBC Universal Sports to thank for it. For reasons known only to itself, the US Olympics broadcaster decided that curling would be a sport it would telecast daily in real time live action on CNBC, once the stock touts quit work at 5 p.m. Eastern.

I am one of those fans who will watch ANY event live rather than on tape delay. Downhill skiing is approximately 100 trillion times more exciting than curling as a television event. But not if you already know the result, it isn't. So, just before and after dinnertime, curling became a part of my February sports diet (there is nothing else on in that time frame except local weatherpeople rooting for big storms).

My exposure to curling followed a familiar pattern. First I was amused, then baffled, and then I found myself getting into it. By the end last night, I was absorbed. Martin had all Canada pulling for him -- plus me. I sure that put him over the top.

That is exactly the pattern I experienced in the unfamiliar Olympic sports I covered live and in person for the Herald. From judo to figure skating to fencing to Greco-Roman wrestling, I began my exposure to those sports filled with dread and scorn, and ended up as a temporary big fan. Those games were worth learning about and worth watching, and their heroes and goats were fully worthy of celebration and pity.

Like I said, it's temporary. I don't go online to stay au courant with the wide world of fencing. But I won't change the channel when it comes on from London in 2012 either.

And that, I believe, is what justifies all the excess and bullshit endemic to every Olympic Games. Not even the International Olympic Committee is far gone enough to believe the Games further the cause of the brotherhood of man. They do, however, further the brotherhood and sisterhood of sports. Learning about a new sport is not unlike living for a time in a foreign country. It challenges your prejudices. It makes your mind work in new ways. If you like sports, it's good for you.

Kevin Martin's smile was oddly familiar to me. Then I remembered. I had seen the very same smile before -- on the face of every person in the Red Sox clubhouse at old Busch Stadium on an October night in 2004. Fulfillment never changes, thank heavens.

In the final, most cosmic sense, each Olympic Games carries the same message. All games are different, and all games are alike, and all games are worth it.

Come to think of it, kind of like people.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of Somebody's Else's Right Fees

Jacques Rogge, head of the International Olympic Committee, undoubtedly will be at tomorrow's gold medal hockey game between the U.S. and Canada. About the only positive attribute of the empty suits and skirts who make up the Olympic bureaucracy is that they really do love sports. It's an abusive relationship sometimes, but the love is there.

Rogge will of course not take sides -- visibly. But inside, it's a good bet Rogge will be rooting like mad for the U.S. Their victory is his best shot to keep Olympic hockey as a real world championship.

If the U.S. team, every member of whom currently is employed in the National Hockey League, wins before what is bound to be a sizable live U.S. television audience, then even the dimwitted Gary Bettman and the even more dimwitted NHL owners who employ him might figure out that the Winter Olympic tournament is their best, hell, only functioning marketing device.

It has been my theory for many years that the purpose of the NHL is to make all the other greedy, shortsighted, pompous, useless sports organizations on earth look good by comparison. The IOC, FIFA, you name it -- next to hockey's biggest pro league, they are models of judicious wisdom and farsighted business planning. Watch Bettman in action for a couple of days, and you feel like having Bud Selig's face replace Teddy Roosevelt's on Mt. Rushmore.

Bettman has been in action this month, fretting about the participation of NHL players in the Olympics. All hockey fans and players on the planet love the Olympic tournament, so naturally the NHL doesn't. Shutting down the league for a few weeks in the middle of its meaningless miserable regular season costs team owners a few bucks. Not so long ago, those very same team owners shut down the league for an entire season because they claimed playing the schedule cost them too much money, but never mind that.

We will digress for a moment to consider the foolishness of this contention. The NHL's largest cross to bear is that casual American sports fans won't watch its games on TV, depriving it of the broadcast riches it feels are its due (ever notice how many American rich people have come to maintain that they are ENTITLED to money without, you know, earning any?). So here's a hockey event that casual sports fans, or even non-fans, DO watch. Here's an event that puts hockey front and center of our national sports conversation. Honestly, even over at AIG, they'd figure out that this event was good for business.

The NHL only sees money going somewhere else. When TV shows Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, wearing a Canadian Olympic team sweater, the league doesn't say, you can't buy advertising like that, it thinks "That sweater cost $157, and we didn't see a nickel of it."

Funny thing. Spend your life bending over for nickels, and you won't see the armored car that runs you over. It's full of somebody's else money they earned by lifting up their eyes from the ground and taking a gander at opportunities.

A U.S. victory would be an opportunity the NHL couldn't squander. The team's players would go back to their respective NHL clubs as not just celebrities, but national heroes -- not at the level of 1960s astronauts, but still heroes. Mike Eruzione has lived a full life off hockey heroship, and he never played after 1980. Fans who saw the U.S. win gold in 2010 could see most players on the team in action next weekend.

Rogge and the IOC want to keep their events as festivals of world championships. So he'll be pulling, covertly, for the U.S. He's probably learned that when dealing with the NHL, subtlety is useless. The league doesn't do nuance.

I do. It is my contention that should Canada win tomorrow, it would suit the NHL's book as a business proposition just as well as would an American triumph. The best marketing proposition ever created is the simple, increasingly obsolete idea of offering the consumer a desirable product made to the best of your business's ability.

Ask yourself this, Bruins fans. Does an early March game with the Nashville Predators fall into that concept? Or does it make clear that much of what the NHL presents is an attempt to wring more nickels out of fans who love their sport and team not wisely but too well?

By far he biggest fundamental complaint and source of alienation of U.S. sports fans from their games is the belief that it's all just another racket, that everybody in every game is only in it for the money, and that their interest in presenting the marvelous entertainment that is honest athletic competition runs a nearly-bankrupt second. The NHL and NBA regular seasons are perhaps the best evidence for that complaint there is.

The NHL, in one of its loopier moves, once allowed ESPN to run a campaign of commercials for broadcasts of the playoffs on the theme that the post-season was real, serious hockey. Did the league think fans were too stupid to grasp the obvious corollary that the regular season is fake, unserious hockey?

The Olympic tournament is one case where fan cynicism does not exist, because the event ISN'T a racket. I would argue that the NHL pros actually are far closer to the Olympic ideal of Baron de Coubertin than are the skiers, figure skaters, etc. For those worthy but mostly unknown (and, by the way, highly professional) athletes, the Games are a once-in-a-lifetime chance to cash in on their life's devotion to their discipline. They are playing for money on the table. Big money.

The NHLers aren't. They've ALREADY cashed in on their discipline. They are playing for, well, for glory. Personal glory, the glory of the team, national glory. If glory sounds too pejorative for you (it shouldn't) substitute "pride." For three weeks once every four years, these wealthy athletes are the gentlemen amateurs who made up the field at the 1896 Athens Games.

Tomorrow at 3 p.m. EST, the hockey teams of Canada and the U.S. will represent their countries. More than that, they will represent the idea of their sport, and the idea of sports itself.

Only soulless cretins could oppose that concept. Soulless cretins who are bound to lose money running a professional sports league, and who deserve to.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Mary Carillo Watch

Last night, Mary's feature story on the everyday lives of ordinary Canadians was a romp with sled dogs, whose presence is such a notable feature of downtown Toronto.

Tonight, depending on how hard the bookers work the phones, Carillo will either sing a duet of "Indian Love Call" with Nelson Eddy or go out and get drunk with Bob and Doug McKenzie.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

It Happens Every February

This week we are experiencing a Boston sports journalism custom that I did not understand when I was a Boston sports journalist myself, and understand even less now that I am a mere journalism consumer. It's spring training coverage.

Spring training lasts about six weeks. By far the most coverage occurs in the very first week, starting BEFORE the reporting date for pitchers and catchers. That's when TV reporters go down and do live shots and tape features. That's when talk radio shows do, or used to do, live remotes. That is the most coveted assignment for sportswriters. You could cut off Dan Shaughnessy's or Steve Buckley's left ear before they'd miss it. It's true love.

And yet, even by the standards of spring training, in which not much ever happens, and hasn't since Cap Anson invented it, the first week of the ritual is the period when the very least happens. I'm not talking news here, I mean simple physical activity by the participants. Pitchers and catchers week primarily equals a) men playing catch; b) men doing stretching exercises, and c) other players hitting off pitching machines in the batting cages. For raw excitement, there's also men running/jogging sprints in the outfield. Then the other players report, and they have covering first base drills. That raises everyone's blood pressure to dangerous levels.

No matter how much one loves baseball, and covering baseball as an occupation, why is an attractive assignment? The only real thing to write are boilerplate interviews with each Red Sox. Research reveals players in 2010 have exactly the same sentiments as players at Sox spring training in 1910, allowing for changes in the cliches used to express them. And, you know, those boilerplate interviews could have been conducted by telephone anytime between the end of the 2009 season and this month without a word being altered.

I don't like candy, and other kids in my neighborhood loved me on Halloween. Closeness to me meant more candy for them. My Herald colleagues felt the same way about me in February. I hated spring training, and so that meant more first-base drill candy for everyone else. As far as I was concerned, better a state high school wrestling championship, or even indoor track, then being forced to write yet another essay on the theme "Player X hit ball well in batting practice, expresses confidence."

The sports media members' love for spring training's dullest time frame baffles me. But then, so much does. It's one of those mysteries that reminds me why even though I loved my former trade with all my being, I was never really part of it in the deepest cultural sense.

I like writing about competition. When it comes to writing about practice, I stand with Allen Iverson.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Ice Pop Quiz

I wasn't brought up a hockey fan (no hockey in Philly when I was a kid). I freely admit that my knowledge of the game, history, tactics, etc. is not what it could be, and that only the advent of HD TV has me watching enough of the sport to make it up to the "casual fan" level.

But I do know some things. In fact, I apparently know enough to be OVERqualified to have hockey-related employment for the NBC Television Network or local TV news.

So gang, I offer the following quick ID quiz. If someone tells you that last night's rousing U.S. 5-3 victory Canada in the Olympics was "the biggest upset in hockey since the 1980 Olympics (direct quote from one of Channel 7's animatronic anchoress sets of empty lingerie), they are telling you one or more of the following pieces of information about themselves.

1. They know less about hockey than Michael Gee, because they know nothing. One team of topflight pros beat another in what qualifies as a pleasant surprise. Not the stuff lifetimes spent in inspirational speaking are made of. The U.S. pros will have go back to being millionaire Ducks, Bruins, Devils, and so forth.

2. They work in television misinformation.

3. Hockey is not the only subject about which they can steer you wrong.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

These Hosers Are Your Problem Now, Comcast Corp.

The Winter Olympics ended for me last night when Mary Carillo put on a Mounties' uniform. And if television history has any justice (it doesn't), "Mary the Mountie" will replace "jump the shark" as the phrase signifying that a broadcast or program has gone well past its expiration date into self-parody.

I realize NBC regards actual sports broadcasting as about its eighth priority for any Olympic Games. I don't like it, but I've come to terms with it. Tape-delaying events in the daytime for prime time broadcast, when you are actually broadcasting the Games LIVE in the daytime, is less excusable, but ratings are up, and the network is not a public charity (although you couldn't tell that from its recent financial statements).

The canned features on athletes, designed to jerk tears whenever possible, draw much criticism from sportswriters, but I think they're fine. Hell, they are the TV version of about 99 percent of all the columns I wrote at four Olympics. The first journalistic question of any Olympic Games is "Who the hell are all these fine, healthy, unknown young athletes?" Providing a few answers is part of NBC's job.

In theory, there's nothing wrong with features on the host city/country, either. Travel, even vicarious travel is supposed to be broadening. Vancouver is a vibrant and fascinating city, too.

But Carillo hasn't shown us Vancouver -- at least, I haven't seen her do so. The two features I've seen were one on polar bears, and the Mountie monstrosity. NBC's Canada is ice, snow, cute, and quaint.

In short, Carillo isn't showing us Canada, she is showing us a stereotype of Canada held by small children and approximately one century out of date even for them. The average resident of Vancouver has encountered as many polar bears as has the average resident of Melrose. Wasn't the story of this Games how it WASN'T snowing?

The two Carillo features I've seen could not have been more patronizing, insulting, really. It's as if she had gone to the Salt Lake City games in 2002 and done a feature on what it was like to be some guy's fourth wife.

To me, the baseline story of every Olympic Games is that the world is a far more diverse and interesting place than you can imagine, so open up your mind and learn something new. NBC's message here is the exact opposite: The world is exactly the way you thought it was, so don't bother thinking about it any more. Your hazy ideas and prejudices are all you need in life. That sounds like the fast track to the brotherhood of mankind, doesn't it?

It fills me with a sense of faith in capitalism that NBC stands to lose a bundle in Vancouver. It'll just be one more reason the network's new masters from Comcast, who know quite a bit about sports broadcasting, will, or should be, cleaning house at 30 Rock quite soon. They likely will decide that the Games are a bit rich for their blood after this.

That's both good and bad. We will miss Carillo's 2014 feature from Sochi, Russia, in which she joins one of the organized crime syndicates currently building its bobsled run.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Five Rings to Rule Them All

This is the second Saturday of the Winter Olympics. This means that the sportswriters and broadcasters covering the event can no longer remember their lives before the Games began, and the notion that there is a future where the Games will not be taking place is simply inconceivable. Their lives have boiled down to a few essentials -- the bus schedule, their deadlines, the packets of notes that will allow them to spell Belariusian names correctly, and remembering to step carefully where it's icy.

My former colleagues deserve no sympathy, nor am I asking for any. Covering an Olympics is exhilarating. The hours are long, but so what? You're at the world festival of world championships, attempting to understand athletes from hundreds of countries and what they do and communicate your understanding to the best of your ability. Being surrounded by people who are all busting their ass to excel is good for you. Anyone who attends an Olympics in any capacity and isn't thereby motivated to do their utmost best in their chosen field of endeavor is a sorry soul indeed.

You are also almost certainly in a part of the world that doesn't suck to look at. Whistler is one of the world's most beautiful ski resorts, and there aren't many ugly ones in that competition. At Lillehammer in 1994, I ended a particularly long day of Tonya-Nancy madness by walking alone up a hill to my lodging at about 2 a.m., accompanied only by the Northern Lights. Wasn't a road trip to Buffalo in November, that's for sure.

What the Olympics are, however, is disorienting -- the most disorienting travel experience of my life, even when I covered one in Atlanta. It is difficult to find the words to express how enveloping the Olympic experience is once you get inside it. Another country doesn't do it justice -- you're living on another planet. It truly is what ESPN claims to be, all sports all the time, from waking up to dropping into a troubled sleep dreaming about the rules of archery or ice dancing.

There is no world, national or local news on Planet Olympus. There's agate results of a zillion sports instead. If there was one place on earth where people weren't talking about Tiger Woods yesterday, it was within the venues of the 2010 Winter Games. The non-Olympic time-space continuum becomes less and less of a factor in one's consciousness the longer one is at the Games. And that effect of separation from real life was just as pronounced in Atlanta as it was in Sydney, maybe more, because the city I no longer paid attention to was so familiar.

The closest real world experience I can compare to covering an Olympics is cramming for an exam in college. You get no sleep, while obsessing over facts and topics that will mean nothing the moment the event/exam is over. And all around you, people appear to be having the best party ever, while you drag yourself to the library/fencing venue, feverishly trying to memorize names, dates, rules, etc. Now imagine 17 days straight of exams.

Isolation and focus on one subject also makes you a little strange. If being surrounded by athletes for whom the Games are a supreme moment of importance in their lives for three weeks is inspirational, it also breeds a certain lack of perspective. Taking sides in an argument over how figure skating is scored is not something most people would do no matter how advanced their state of inebriation. But I would have written a column doing just that if I were in Vancouver. And no matter which side I took, I'm sure I would have been damn bitter about it.

There are sportswriters, not many but a few, who do NOTHING but cover Olympics and the Olympic sports in non-Olympic years. At least two or three of them aren't completely nuts, but they're a minority among their peers. That beat involves a lot of travel to nice places (the IOC holds no meetings in East St. Louis, Illinois) but I think bomb disposal duty would be better for one's long term mental health.

So I hope readers will understand that while the four Olympics I covered remain in my memory as the professional and personal highlights of my sportswriting career, with only Super Bowl XXXVI, the 2003 ALCS and the 2004 World Series matching them, part of those memories is how glad I was when each of those Olympics was over, and I heard the magic words "We're number one for takeoff." For one thing, I was tired. Weren't you tired, dear reader, after all the greatest experiences of your life were over?

And oddly enough, one of the happiest of my Olympic memories is of going back to work after a few days off. It felt so great, covering an event which WASN'T the most important moment in the lives of all concerned.

There's a lot to be said for the experience of just another ballgame.

Friday, February 19, 2010

It's All About the Family -- Really

The first words that came out of my car radio at 6:15 a.m. before I could change the channel were as follows.

"Catch the LIVE broadcast of Tiger Woods' press conference at 11 this morning, brought to you by Name of Local Small Business That Doesn't Advertising With Me."

I could think of no more fitting commentary on what's going to go down at TPC Sawgrass today.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Almost Partially True Confessions

Professionally, and even more now that's it's just personally, my interest in Tiger Woods has pretty much begun on the first tee and ended on the 18th green. The performance of one of history's greatest golfers fascinates me. The personal triumphs and disasters of the life of another ultra-weird, ultra-wealthy, overentitled pro jock are actually less capable of gripping my attention that the work of my day job.

So I won't be goofing off to watch Woods' odd cross between a press availability, family reunion and hostage video tomorrow morning. Somehow I have a hunch I'll learn all about it anyway. When an event is slated to be overcovered by both TMZ and Golf Digest, avoiding it would be a tougher accomplishment than winning the Open.

The fact I don't care, however, doesn't mean Woods' appearance and words (doubtless as sincere as the finest PR staff can make them) aren't news. And the idea that some sportswriters, namely, the Golf Writers of America, are debating boycotting the invitation-only event fills me with far more sorrow and anger than the idea that some athlete fooled around on the road and made a perfect fool of himself in the process.

Many of the members of the GWA are people I know, like and respect. So it is with real concern that I say the following: Gang, get over yourselves. You are honest newspaper hacks, not the Golf Integrity Police, nor a forum at Columbia School of Journalism.

Is it bogus Woods is not answering questions and allowing only pool reporters to the event (one if not the only reporter sure to be Woods' sportswriting shadow and lackey Doug Ferguson of Associated Press)? Yes. Will this be the first bogus event violating the ideals of journalism any of you have covered? Only if it's your first day on the job, which it isn't.

Let's not forget the bargain all sportswriters and all journalists make with Mephistopheles when we take the gig. We get (got in my case) to see, do, and write about a lot of cool stuff. But we must also see, experience, and write about a lot of uncool stuff, stuff that ranges from demeaning to horrible. And the ethics of our craft insist we have to do both to the best of our ability, and refrain from complaining about the uncool stuff except to each other in press rooms and barrooms.

Reporters, in short, must accept that the news dictates to them, not the other way around. Anyone who can't live with that shouldn't be a reporter at all.

Maybe Tiger Woods can't stop being a bogus person. Maybe he can. But if he can't, that's no reason to start being bogus oneself.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Badly Dressed Drama of Athletic Competition

The Winter Olympics is the one time every four years that figure skating spends most of its energy trying to convince the world it's a real sport -- as normal and red-blooded an athletic endeavor as, if not NASCAR, than at least the luge.

None of the other athletes in the Games listen. There are two kinds of sports at the Winter Olympics, the really, really dangerous ones and figure skating. When a figure skater falls, all that's hurt is their pride. So they get no respect from their frequently X-rayed Olympic peers.

The average sports fan doesn't believe the figure skaters either. For one thing, a "uniform" that looks like Cirque de Soleil meets Project Runway outtakes doesn't shriek of honest sweat by man nor woman, although in all honesty figure skating costumes are no more illogical an outfit for playing a game than the ones baseball players wear. There's also the little issue of the figure skating that's on TV when its NOT the Olympics.

A couple months ago, I watched in hypnotized horror/fascination a "Tribute to Smokey Robinson on Ice." And it had Smokey in it! He and a band were set up on one side of the rink doing his greatest hits while what passes for former greats of skating did interpretive routines based on each song. There's really no other human athletic activity where such a seamless transition to pathetic cheesy show biz is possible.

So the skaters overcompensate. They emphasize the rigors of their discipline -- although only TV sports/newscasters getting paid to do so seem to believe them. The hell of it is, the skaters are right. I know. I once spent three weeks doing nothing but watching figure skating and thinking about figure skating and I saw enough of it, good and bad, to realize these men and women are astonishing athletes full of both physical ability and all those supposed sporting virtues like work ethic, poise, etc.

I also saw figure skating when it was the biggest story in the world. It was the Lillehammer Games of 1994 a/k/a "Nancy vs Tonya." Kerrigan and Harding were the first of the newsless news tabloid frenzies -- the precursor to O.J., Bill and Monica, and of course, Tiger. The first night the two women skated head to head got higher ratings than many Super Bowls and you can look it up.

It was pretty cool in a perverse way covering the biggest story in the world -- especially because it was so meaningless as well. The only problem, and I freely admit it was mine, was this: figure skating itself put me into indifference, followed ennui, followed by coma. On TV, they don't show you the 25 out of 30 Olympic skaters who fall down a lot. I saw them fall. I saw them practice.

Sequined guys and gals, relax. You're athletes in a sport. Congratulations. You're also athletes in a dull sport.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

A Football History List

The following information is presented in the fond but vain hope it will stifle 99.999 percent of the commentary issued since the final gun of Super Bowl XLIV.

Quarterbacks Who Have Both Won and Lost Super Bowls (Note: Must have played in game).

1. Len Dawson
2. Johnny Unitas
3. Roger Staubach
4. Joe Theismann
5. John Elway
6. Brett Favre
7. Tom Brady
8. Peyton Manning
9. Kurt Warner
10. Bob Griese

The alert reader will note that 7 of 8 of the above QBs are either in the Hall of Fame or certain to be. One of them is always listed in discussions of "greatest quarterback ever," and another (Elway) is always at least an honorable mention. IMO, Staubach is as underrated as a Hall of Fame quarterback can ever be.

My guess is that the interception he threw to Tracy Porter is going to bother Manning for a whole lot longer than it bothers History.

PS: The even more alert reader would be commentator Lance, who pointed out I left Warner and Griese off my initial list. My thanks to him and apologies for the error.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Fortune Favors the Brave

At bottom, football is a sport built on aggression. They won't come any more aggressive than Sean Payton yesterday at the Super Bowl.

Forget the statistical analysis of Payton's major decisions during the game, going for it on fourth and goal and opening the second half with an onsides kick. For one thing, Payton had a high degree of belief they'd both work, what with the Saints having the league's highest scoring offense AND having game planned an onside kick well before he called it. What mattered in both calls is that they represented a coach doing his very utmost to seize the initiative, to hit first and keep on hitting.

Neither call really won the game by itself, or together. The Colts regained the lead on their next possession after the Saints recovered the onside kick and scored, after all. But the further the game went on, the more New Orleans became the aggressor. It had the initiative, hit first, and dared the Colts to respond. Which, thanks to Terry Porter, they couldn't.

I know that had I been a Saint, going out for the second half knowing we were opening with an onsides kick in the Super Bowl, I'd have had all the energy my system could take and more.

I'd have had faith, because my leader was showing faith in me.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Not Worth a Pitch: The Ultimate Insult to the Sporting Press

This evening I shall watch the Super Bowl as the good Pete Rozelle intended -- on television, at a large convivial party of friends and neighbors. But 14 times in my past, I was lucky enough to attend Super Bowls in person, as a working sportswriter.

Aside from the unbridled chaos of the post-game interview sessions and the psychotic deadline pressures, which you get used to, it's a tremendous experience. Arriving in a nearly empty stadium and feeling the energy build as it fills up and kickoff approaches is thrilling. Watching how the stage is set up and taken down for the halftime show is way more interesting than any of the halftime shows could ever be, nipples and all. And the NFL throws a large, convivial and lavish buffet dinner for its own employees and the press AFTER the game -- so the social part is handled, too.

There is, however, two ways, one small, one large, in which sportswriters experience the Super Bowl which sets us (why do I still say us, doctor?) wholly apart from the community of sports fans, 100 million or so strong, who watch along with us. First, the trivial one. Since all TV monitors in press boxes (and the several auxiliary press facilities) have the sound off to avoid distraction, the NFL places a small transistor radio tuned only to the game at each press seat, along with an earpiece listening device. Any reporter who wants to can follow the action on radio.

Who listens to the Super Bowl on the radio? Domino's delivery guys? If you run out of beer in third quarter and have to drive to a packy? Also, I never saw a reporter actually USE the radio, although sometimes the broadcast is unavoidable.

At Super Bowl XXIV at the Superdome, the radio call of the 49ers 55-10 win over the Broncos was piped into the press box men's room (and I'm sure the women's room, too). This allowed me the pleasure of hearing the immortal Jack Buck declare sometime in the second quarter, "Dan Reeves can't like the way this game is unfolding, or should I say folding?"

But that marginal difference in Super Bowl viewing pales to the one that in my experience people actually don't believe when you tell them. Sportswriters at the Super Bowl don't get to see the TV commercials. The live network feed is blacked out during commercial breaks,and replaced with graphics of stats updates. This always used to bother me, because I thought the league was sending an unsubtle message about my profession's financial status. You bums are too poor to make to worth anyone's while to sell you stuff. Which was a dirty lie. A spare bag of Doritos a week was within the bounds of my disposable income -- most weeks.

The real disconnect came the next day. The sportswriter flies home, and finds his family, friends, co-workers, and the public at large in animated conversations about commercials he didn't see. He has no idea what the hell they're talking about. And should he be so foolish as to say, "pardon me, could you get me up to speed here," the reaction was swift, universal, and condemning.

"Whadaya mean you didn't see that ad? You were AT the damn Super Bowl, weren't you?"

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Last Call

The final score isn't going to be on the order of 13-10. Other than that, forecasting Super Bowl XLIV is blindfolded dart-throwing as handicapping.

In the AFC championship game, the Colts couldn't touch the end zone for the first 28 minutes of the game. They would up scoring 30. In the NFC championship game, the Saints could barely make a first down in the second half and overtime. They wound up scoring 31. Those totals were against defenses much better than their own. So I like the over. Who doesn't?

But as for who's going to win, my opinions remains more fluid. I believe that the line of Saints getting five is a tiny bit, say 1 1/2 points, of an overlay. New Orleans' offense, which can both run and pass, is not getting the consideration from the market that it deserves. Then again, for all the twelve trillion words expounded on Dwight Freeney's ankle, there has been no attention to the curious case of Drew Brees. If Brees WASN'T playing hurt in the last part of the NFC title game, I'd be shocked. Tim Tebow made better throws in the Senior Bowl.

The Colts' defense is excellent at stopping the run -- when that's all it has to do. It can frustrate an opponent's passing, too -- if all said opponent does is throw. But when an opponent retains the initiative to do both, the Colts defense is stone average. The Saints average one hell of a lot of points per game. Seems reasonable to expect the same tomorrow.

Alas (oh, come on, any neutral city fan with a soul will root for the Saints. The Colts are easy to respect and admire but difficult to embrace.), I do not think one hell of a lot of points will win for New Orleans. It seems silly to waste too much mental energy analyzing this Super Bowl when it so obviously hinges on the one thing, or rather person, even the non-football fans at your party know. This is Peyton Manning's game to win or lose, and he wins far more than he loses.

Don't overthink football, ever. Is one team better at punching people in the mouth than the other? It's gonna win. No sane person could say in advance whether the Colts or Saints will have the ultimate edge of pushing their rival no-necks around. So it's time for Football Principle 2. Who's got the quarterback.

Brees is an outstanding quarterback. Manning is a Hall of Fame quarterback having the finest season of his career. He just keeps getting better. This can be tracked from the way Patriots fans and the Patriots themselves treat Manning. The derision and contempt of 2003 has become the respect and fear of 2009-2010. If Manning plays as well as he did against the Jets, the Colts will be world champions easily. If Manning merely plays well, they will be world champions without the adverb.

Of course, the last time a Hall of Fame quarterback having his career year got to the Super Bowl, Tom Brady spent the game picking grass out of his ears, and the Giants upset the Patriots. Maybe New Orleans' pass rush can get to Manning for 60 minutes. Maybe. The Jets, whose pass rush is about five times better, got to Manning for a while. A while wasn't nearly long enough.

Colts to win. Colts to cover I think. It's a cruel world. Storylines and sentiment are seldom a match for genuine greatness.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Oh, the Humanities!

Learned something truly amazing at my day job this morning (lunch break now). In the section of "Advertising Age" devoted to the Super Bowl, which is tremendously entertaining from start to finish, there was a terrific article on possible CBS ad censorship of a Super Bowl commercial created by the video game company Electronic Arts.

It seems that CBS will not let the advertisement use the word "hell" on the air at the Super Bowl. This is a little problem for EA, because the ad is part of a product launch of a new video game "Dante's Inferno," based on, no kidding, "The Divine Comedy" by Dante Aligheri. You, the intrepid video gamer, play the role of the poet, who must rescue the beloved Beatrice (doubtless dressed in something low-cut) from the ninth circle of, well, Hell.

English teachers across the country are praying the game is a big success. Me, too. I look forward to an entire series of epic poetry-based video games: The Aeneid game, "The Waste Land" game, and as software gets more sophisticated, the Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson video game.

The poet as action hero. I can hear countless Ph.D. thesis proposals being ginned up even as I write this. I can also hear EA stockholders wondering about management substance abuse issues.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Remote Thought While Using the Remote

The Grammy Awards are exactly to awards ceremonies what the Pro Bowl is to football games.

Except for one thing. The football celebrities congratulating each other tend to make smaller fools of themselves.