Television sports coverage lacks focus

“60 Minutes” commentator Andy Rooney has taken a lot of heat recently for his comments about female sports broadcasters.

In an interview on the Madison Square Garden Network’s “The Boomer Esiason Show,” Rooney said women have “no business” reporting on a football game. I’m not going to bother trying to refute that statement because that would imply that it has some sort of credibility. Anyone who agrees with Rooney can simply join him on his time machine back to the Dark Ages.

But Rooney is pointing out something that is, in fact, true of television sports. Namely, broadcasters today have made television sports as much about the coverage as about the games.

This year’s World Series is a perfect example of a network trying to outshine the games it’s broadcasting. FOX is the champion of adding bells and whistles to broadcasts: flashy graphics, bizarre camera angles, and promos for other television shows. Part of this is the nature of the medium. Unlike radio, where broadcasters must be the eyes of their listeners, the role of the play-by-play announcer on television is slightly diminished. This does not, however, mean that networks should increase the presence of the broadcasters by adding extraneous information and graphics to the television monitor.

A little over a week ago, Rooney “apologized” on “60 Minutes” for his remarks. While maintaining that he does not want women reporting from the sidelines of football games, he did admit that some women are capable broadcasters. That’s the problem: only some women know what they’re doing. And several female broadcasters provide little more than eye candy for male viewers. But sports broadcasting is competitive enough that there is no need to put someone on the sidelines who isn’t capable of the job.

But if Rooney has a problem with television sports coverage, he should have gone a little farther. Women are not the only ones who get sports broadcasting jobs for the wrong reasons. Many television networks hire former professional athletes to do color commentary for games. Several players make the transition from the field to the booth effortlessly. Rooney himself singled out tennis great Chris Evert for her insightful commentary.

Unfortunately, most of the time these athletes struggle to forget about their past glories and focus on the game at hand. If I’m watching a match between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, I do not want to hear John McEnroe chime in with an anecdote from his own Grand Slam finals days. If I’m watching an NBA game, I want to know why the Knicks are down by 20, not why commentator Bill Walton thinks post-players were better when he played.

In effect, announcers should be heard, and not seen. They should complement, not compete with, the game. Christine Brennan, sports columnist for USA Today, argued in a CNN interview about Rooney’s remarks that sideline reporter Melissa Stark is one of the reasons for the high ratings of Monday Night Football. I think Melissa Stark is a great reporter. She is poised and professional and asks tough questions. But Monday Night Football is a success because the NFL is the most popular professional league in this country. Football speaks for itself, and to suggest that one announcer or reporter can boost ratings puts too much emphasis on something that is secondary to the games.

At their best, broadcasters can integrate themselves seamlessly into a sporting event. When the job is done right, a play-by-play call can become just as indelible as the action it describes. When was the last time you saw the replay of Kirk Gibson’s 1988 World Series home run without hearing Jack Buck’s accompanying call?

I want to see women reporting from the sidelines of football games. I want color commentators whose own experience makes them uniquely suited to analyze any sporting situation. But I don’t want half my television screen taken up by the results of an online poll, and I don’t want to miss any of the action on the field because the “Fan Cam” was scanning the crowd.

At the heart of Rooney’s comments was dissatisfaction with the mediocrity of some sports television coverage. Unfortunately for him, this dissatisfaction manifested itself in derogatory and sexist remarks. But as we head into the second half of football season and hockey and basketball coverage starts up, maybe the networks should pay him some heed and take a look at just who it is they have commenting on the games.

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