As most of you wait with bated breath for the NCAA National Championship game on Monday, I could care less. In fact, I will not be watching the game.
That’s a lot coming from a guy who learned to throw a football at the age of two and played and loved the game before he was able to identify individual teams and players. I was lucky. I grew up in an era of only three major networks, a fourth being public television and maybe a fifth on UHF (those of you who still know what that is) that showed “B” movies, old Three Stooges shorts and cartoons along with locally produced talk shows.
Back in the olden days sports on TV were a treat, not a way of life. Sunday afternoons after church were spent watching the NFL. Saturday afternoons after playing outside it was the Wide World of Sports where I first found out about the “sports” like curling. That of course was were I first learned on Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and the whole gang. And then college football where I learned the phrase “Whoa Nellie!” It was a much simpler time and as kids we were far more well rounded than kids today. Then came Monday Night Football that was a treat for kids like me who couldn’t get enough of football Saturday or Sunday. Heck, it was the NFL pre-game show as a kid that I first learned of diversity and not a court order or protest. The host of the Sunday pre-game show on CBS, then the home of AFC action was Brent Musburger, Phyllis George and Irv Cross. We’re talking the early ‘70s and your crew was two guys – one white, one black and a female. The NFL was ahead of the times in hindsight. And no one made a big deal out of it the way they do today screaming equality and diversity. But I digress.
Sports seasons were slightly shorter or seemed that way and after football was over we switched over to basketball and then as the weather started to warm up it was baseball season that took us through spring and summer ending for the most part as football began once again. Now we are so log-jammed with sports there are a few weeks in October that on any given day you will have pro football, baseball and basketball fighting for airtime as well as sports like hockey and NASCAR. Of course now they all have their own network that is on air all year.
I used to enjoy sports a lot. In fact I participated in sports year ‘round as well. But now all the sports seasons run together and overlap and attempt to take up all of my time. It has gotten so bad that I quit watching most sports. I still watch pro football and maybe a few college games but not like I did as a kid. Sports used to be specialty programming back in the day and I grew to appreciate the sport more because it wasn’t as readily accessible as it is now. I no long watch NBA. I think it suffers from bad public relations from the players involved and the people that hang out at the games. I rarely watch baseball any more. Hell, there are 162 games in the season – that alone is too much information overload. What I do love, however is listening to the game on the radio. I realize it’s old school, but to be truthful baseball is a sport that doesn’t require 100 percent of your attention. I prefer on a lazy summer evening listening to a game than music on the radio. Baseball announcers are a special breed as they are able to paint a beautiful picture with their words unlike other sports that require you attention all the time. Granted, attending a baseball game is fun – especially a minor league game. Attending one of these games is like attending a cocktail party as most everyone there is not 100 percent focused on what is happening on the field. The action is a reference point but not the center of attention. At an afternoon ballgame I’ve seen more business deals made and new friendships struck up than at any bar or boardroom. I, myself have made some really close friends attending minor league baseball games some longer and better than some of my older and no longer friends. Each spring we rekindle our friendship and often between seasons even get together, exchange emails, phone calls or even meet for lunch of dinner.
I remember when cable TV came to town. We were on of the first ones on our block to get all these additional channels. I remember when there was only HBO who in the early days signed off around one or two in the morning. Then came Showtime and Cinemax that my best friend in high school Scott and I nicknamed “Skinamax” because movies they aired overnight sometimes had brief nudity. And that was forbidden fruit for two guys who attended a Christian high school. And then there was the early morning aerobics show that came on around six with females dressed in spandex outfits working out, bending over, etc. Waking up early never felt so good back in the day.
On my early cable channels was not only a fledgling MTV (then Music Television) Ted Turner’s WTBS the “Superstation” (formerly the old Channel 17) now just TBS and a fledgling all sports station ESPN.
Being a wannabe jock I tried watching the fledgling channel. It was kind of boring. The only live sport they could get was “Australian Rules Football”. The only hint of NFL, NCAA, NBA or MLB was during a highlight show called “SportsCenter”. That’s where I was first initiated to Chris Berman and his silly nicknames for the players during highlights. Of course today that is now industry standard and somehow Berman is still around. Back then WTBS and WGN out of Chicago did a better job of sportscasting because TBS was owned by Turner, also owner of the Atlanta Braves and the Hawks. Therefore we had unlimited access to both teams as well as pro soccer when Atlanta briefly had a pro soccer team in the early ‘80s as well as the then Atlanta Flames. WTBS nicknamed the Braves “America’s Team” much the way the Cowboys were touted as such by the NFL. ESPN was a novelty at best not the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” that they’re known as now.
Soon ESPN started to grow. They soon had major league baseball on Sunday nights. That was a novelty, especially during the early days of cable. ESPN used to be on channel eight and MTV on nine. They were part of the basic cable package that cost around $7 or $8 a month back in the day. Actually it was stipulated by them to be on the lower channel numbers so they would be in more households.
That was fine and dandy as far as I was concerned. Baseball used to only be on NBC Saturday afternoons and then Fox and for a brief time ABC tried Monday Night Baseball. The latter really didn’t work out because like I stated early baseball is better heard than seen.
Being born in New York and then growing up two hours from Atlanta I was a fan of New York and the Atlanta teams as most people back in the day were. You cheered for UT football, even UGA and Georgia Tech or Vandy because they were theoretically neighboring towns (compared to schools like Alabama, Auburn, Florida and Florida State). Everyone cheered for the “home” school or the school most regionally connected to where they lived, be it high school, college or pros.
Then things started to change. In the mid ‘90s ESPN bought the rights to air an NFL game of the week on Sunday night. They also moved their station to a higher channel that meant you had to have a more expensive cable plan to get the station on your TV. Sunday night football was a novelty and no big deal – or at least I thought.
Then ESPN started buying up college games. Games I used to watch on ABC, CBS or even NBC on occasion was only aired either on ESPN or a pay-per-view channel through my cable provider (Comcast).
Then the floodgates started to open. More and more sports were being aired on TV. There were now cable channels that aired nothing but golf, tennis, “extreme sports” – you name it. We went from having four TV stations to having five major networks and literally over 100 cable channels with programming divided by every niche and sub-niche possible. The ESPN began ESPN2 and 3 and all sorts of other sports channels within their niche of broadcasting sports.
And this was interfering with my lifelong love of football. You see, to me football is the greatest game. It is the only true team sport because it requires all 11 players of one side to work together in unison to be truly successful. It was a truly physical game that could only be played once a week unlike baseball that is played six or more days a week and basketball that is played four or more times a week.
That is what used to be great about the sport. Watching or even participating in football is one thing the buildup to the game was another. All the smack talking, boasting, predictions, planning, etc. was almost as fun as the game itself. After the game you had a week to brag, make excuses or so on. It was no big deal. It was one aspect in your life.
Then ESPN started buying up rights to more and more games and sports, launching new channels to air them. The games no longer were about the teams or the town and communities they represented it became all about the money that could be generated and spent and what this money could be spent on.
ESPN then bought the rights for Monday Night Football away from ABC taking away one of my favorite childhood memories growing up. As a kid I watched Monday Night Football with my dad after he got home from work and we had dinner as a family. As I got older I continued to watch. Monday Night Football is where I learned John Lennon was murdered.
As the times changed so did the announcers as well as some of the magic. But on Monday night I could always turn on a TV wherever I was and watch Monday Night Football. Now I have to have a cable package to do so. I quit watching when the game moved to ESPN. The only ESPN Monday Night Football games I’ve watched since have been the ones I work as a sideline photographer at Atlanta Falcons home games. Needless to say I have not seen a Monday night game this year. The one game the Falcons were on Monday night at Green Bay, I listened to on my radio.
Football used to be special to me. As a kid I couldn’t get enough. Now there are games on Saturday, Sunday Monday, some Tuesdays, Thursdays and an occasional Friday. It’s informational overload. There is no longer enough time to absorb what happened. Before I can they’re airing another game somewhere. Ten years ago the NFL started their own cable station and you can watch the NFL all year long. No offense, but I don’t want to. I hate the draft after the first or second round. Now it has been extended to a four day affair. I don’t care about the combine or what’s going on there. I don’t care what these guys do when they’re not playing football. It’s time to move onto the next sport in my opinion. However, all sports have followed suit with the NFL and have their own station and now website that will allow you to subscribe to stream you own team.
Lost in all this is the home team. As a kid I was Falcons and Dolphins fan. They were the two closest NFC and AFC team to my TV market. Now I have friends who are Raiders, Seahawks, Lions and Cowboys fans who not only have no ties to those cities, they never visited them. They only like them because of marketing or something they saw on TV or in many cases because they are the current winning team. It’s amazing how many Alabama fans there are in Chattanooga, TN of people who have neither attended the school or been to the game, let alone drive past the state line.
I started covering the Falcons for Enigma beginning with the 2000 season. Back in the old days I was given a field pass and a press box pass for a beat writer. It was like pulling teeth to get someone to go to the games with me. Then all of a sudden they made the playoffs with Michael Vick. My phone rang off the hook with people wanting to “help me” cover the Falcons. I finally had to turn my phone off a couple of years ago in the midst of the Mike Smith era when the Falcons had five straight winning seasons and four post season appearances. Fair weather fans. That’s why I prefer to do it all by myself these days.
And when it comes to college football as a kid there were maybe 12 bowl games. There were four major bow games – Rose, Cotton and Orange that were originally played on New Year’s day and the Sugar Bowl that was played on New Year’s Eve. There were only a handful of other bowls like the Astro-Blue Bonnet, the Peach, Liberty and Fiesta Bowl that come to mind. I remember when the Fiesta Bowl was played almost a week before the four majors and now it is considered one of the majors.
Then someone came up with the idea that the press and coaches’ polls weren’t good enough to name the so-called “mythical” national championship. There must be a “title game”. That’s when the BCS was created beginning with the 1998 season. 100 years of tradition was thrown out the door. And guess where this title game was aired eventually? You guessed it – ESPN. Things started to get worse and worse and worse. ESPN used its clout as the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” though not only their cable networks but their radio stations and affiliates as well as their magazines and websites to lobby and convince the masses we needed a playoff to crown a national championship.
Ironically they used the argument that the FCS (formerly 1-AA) used a playoff system. The reason FCS schools use a playoff system is because no one cares who those schools are except their hometowns or conferences – or unless they upset an FBS (formerly 1-A) school like when Appalachian State upset Michigan a few years back.
This year there were 39 bowl games. Close to half the schools involved with these “bowl games” had a .500 record. To be “bowl eligible” in this era all you have to have is six wins. Really? I remember when six wins were nothing to brag about. I anything that would get a coach fired. Ten years ago who cared about Boise State, Texas A&M, Baylor or even Rutgers? Now they’ve become part of the sports mainstream media coverage. All the while they diss the likes of Notre Dame, Georgia and Michigan. Just this past season Nebraska’s coach got fired despite averaging over nine wins a season? And why? All because of the love of money or the potential to make money.
The Texas Longhorns now have their own TV network or deal to broadcast their games. This past season ESPN launched the SEC network. Of course the SEC has been diluted by schools like Texas A&M and Missouri, who if I look at my map correctly are not in the southeastern United States. ESPN throws money at these schools to form “Super” Conferences so they can add a “championship” game to decide who will represent their so-called conference in either the new playoff system or a more marquee bowl game.
Of course beginning about 20 years ago corporations paid to be the “title” sponsor of the various bowl games. Take for example the FedEx Orange Bowl or even a bowl that the UT Vols played in the “TaxSlayer Bowl”. And if you look closely you will see that a majority of these bowl games are aired on ESPN not even a major or “free network” like I like to call them.
Look at all the social issues or problems involved with pro and college sports today. Jameis Winston is as know for his rape accusation, his stealing of crab legs at a Publix as he is for winning the Heisman Trophy and leading Florida State to the national championship last year. Ray Rice, who helped the Baltimore Ravens win the Super Bowl two years ago is now known as a wife-beater. All in all for the love of money. Colleges and pro teams no longer care about the character of their players. They excuse bad and even illegal behavior if it means more wins and in the end more money for the school.
And this is perpetuated by the various hosts of ESPN TV and radio making excuses for the behavior and ensuring a hostile environment as well as downplaying the fact a lot of if not most ball players are hired guns for the respective programs. Traditional powerhouse programs like Notre Dame are ridiculed for being behind the times or living in the past because they actually require their players to go to class and get an education. And ESPN has been a long proponent of the “one and done” in basketball. The network, the schools now and those in favor of it are not taking the best interests of these players – or should I say commodities into consideration. In the NBA alone you’ve had more busts than any other sport. They may fire back that baseball drafts high school players. Maybe, but baseball is traditionally played in the spring and summer for the most part when school usually is out on break. There is also a higher than usual failure rate in major league baseball than other sports as well. I’m not even going to go into the insane amounts of money being thrown at these literal kids who a year or two ago where getting an allowance from their parents to take out the garbage. There’s enough material for another article or twenty there.
And you know the NFL and the leagues are getting rich off of this. ESPN would not pay three billion dollars to the rights to Monday Night Football is they weren’t making more money from it.
And now we have professional teams filled with a bunch of mush-mouth players, many with behavior problems that take up too much of one’s life making one less well-rounded, creating more cottage industries that exploit not only the players and their money but the income of fans of the sports and individuals involved.
Now there is too much football in my life – something I never thought I would ever say as a kid. It used to be kind of like a fraternity but now everyone is involved – even computer geeks with “fantasy football” leagues.
And now we have a playoff to determine a definitive “national champion”. Do we really need this? What is lost in all of this playoff hype of college postseason is the activities outside of the game. Beyond the play on the field the best thing about college football is not the final score, it’s the arguments, discussions and smack talk between games arguing who “really” is number one in the land. That is the best part of the sport – the bragging, excuses being made and the promise of another shot at a “mythical” national championship. That is now being missed and discarded by having a playoff season. Before in my mind I could always say, “Well, my team would have beaten yours”. No longer the case thanks to ESPN and the greedy powers that be.
I could care less who is playing in the National Championship game Monday. Ten years ago no one heard about Oregon football. I still don’t care. Quite frankly with all of this information overload I am no longer interested in watch games that don’t feature “my” team. I many ways I now have turned my back on the sport I grew up loving – and for the most part all sports in general. I don’t know… maybe that is actually a blessing in disguise. Thanks ESPN.
– Dave Weinthal
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