Not Just For the Jock

in impassioned defense of sports talk radio

When Terry Pegula bought the Buffalo Bills NFL football franchise, grown men called the local sports talk radio station, weeping. My first inclination, not being native to Buffalo, was to mock and deride, but the parade of phone calls yielded one emotion-choked, sob-filled laudation to the Pegula family after another. It was striking.

Terry Pegula was vetted by the NFL and found worthy to own a franchise. His billions were earned in the nefarious practice of fracking. I think his rags-to-riches story runs along the lines that he started twenty years ago with a used garden hose, a shovel, and a broken bicycle pump, and now he says, “I’m keeping ticket prices as low as allowable. If I need more money, I’ll drill another well.” Beautiful. Fracking, by the way, is illegal in New York. People protest it and everything. The casual observer of New York state politics agrees with the hardened cynic that, as soon as the pols can figure out an equitable way to distribute the fracking money amongst themselves, fracking will become safe, legal, and rare.

The Erie County Executive is an infrequent guest on the afternoon show, not as a fanboy politician trying to score easy votes with a very special guest appearance doing homage to the local sports team, but as a representative answering the beck and call of sports talk radio show hosts who are demanding answers in behalf of their listeners, his constituency, concerning the economic impact of necessary infrastructure changes to accommodate the inevitable downtown temple stadium. The name Robert Moses is occasionally mentioned. The entire region erupts into boos and hisses, which summons our only United States Senator, who is a Munchkin, to pad into the region to eat chicken wings and to talk about the state’s only professional football franchise and the blue-collar work ethic, not knowing, apparently, that the blue-collar work ethic caused Bethlehem Steel to sail over the western horizon of Lake Erie about forty years ago. Times have changed. Sports talk radio has changed.

No longer is sports talk radio limited to endless griping about player performance by wannabe jock hosts named Bulldog. I say that ironically: our number one radio show is “Mike Schopp and The Bulldog;” Mike is the intellectually curious ex-sort-of-jock (I think he played tennis), while The Bulldog is the sensitive cultural observer whose twitter feed @bulldogwgr is far more likely to include a paean to a favorite alt-country rock band than it is to include a mention of a sporting event. His moniker was given to him, I think, because he is a gigantic, scary-looking biker dude. Mike is excruciatingly deliberate in his attention to detail, to the delight of listeners, and to the fury of wannabe jock callers; he is a disciplined arguer, a student of forensic debate, listening carefully to his interlocutor before agreeing or disagreeing based on evidence. I say, no longer is sports talk radio limited to endless griping about player performance by wannabe jock hosts and wannabe jock callers; instead, it has become all-inclusive, a kind-of crucible for many things theoretical, e.g., philosophical, economical, political, cultural, et. al., even familial–many things theoretical put into practice.

For example, the accusation that the football team from Boston cheated by deflating its footballs to give them some sort of advantage sparked much discussion on sports talk radio about authority and consequence: how it should be meted out and who should direct it. Also discussed were issues of human character, that is, how it comes to pass that honorable men cheat, which leads back to the question of authority (an important question in a free society), revealing a wisdom that honorable men cheat as much as they can, behaving virtuously only as much as they have to. What is, finally, the enforcing authority in this social microcosm known as athletics? It is, finally, money. The commissioner’s job is to submit a product to the market that makes his billionaire employers more billions. This is true for amateur athletics and professional athletics. How, then, shall fans affect for good the teams and players they love?

Have you ever wondered how a union contract with a multi-national corporation works? How the negotiations actually proceed, legally? How they play out, publicly? What is the purpose of this leaked information? And who leaked it? Cui bono, O Representative, cui bono? We pore over every detail for days, weeks, months, as long as it takes to get the contract made.

Thus sports talk radio.

It is a vibrant salon, taking all comers, so long as you can make a reasoned argument for the passion you feel for your position. Pluralism, including old-school fans, casual fans, metrics fans (oh, the nerds!), and even trolls, expands the market, which fulfills the sports talk radio show host’s vocation. Pluralism has made talking about sports better, more informative, and more interesting. Sports talk radio has learned that substantial argumentation which includes the many facets of life which sports fandom touches is a euvoluntary exchange, much more pleasurable than the old model, which was a close communion of frustrated fans screaming at each other about archaic statistics and about the greatest team/player/coach ever. A sports talk radio show host cannot experience market growth if he condescends in this way to his audience, except when empathy for his general audience demands that he do so to an audience in specific.

Really, empathy for the audience drives sports talk radio.

mic

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Stuart Scott, RIP

Sports punditry is the quintessential human experience, and Stu brought it all to the TV screen every time the camera cut to him, even when it cut away from him to show highlights while he narrated last night’s sports achievements, punctuating them with trademark quips and exclamations. For many years I ate my breakfast and read the news while Stuart Scott lived the perfect human life.

First, there is sports, which, aside from ticket sales, [blog sponsorship name here]’s beer sales, t-shirt sales, and other vending sales [blog sponsorships welcome here], media coverage, security details, maintenance details, parking, and scalping at the site of the sporting event, is meaningless.

Then there is sports punditry, a cloud of ceaseless talking about sports, both on the radio within the local markets and nationally broadcast, and also on the television, broadcast nationally via satellite, first at ESPN, which was Stuart Scott’s home, then growing into innumerable channels, day and night, which media also generate advertising sales, which create staff, who need brick-and-mortar workplaces, maintenance, and vending themselves, a love of all which creates a cycle of love for sports, reciprocating to the paragraph immediately above this one.

Shall we nod in agreement to each other to gently saunter by the political ramifications brought by stadium builds, infrastructure contracting, and monied interests shaking hands nefariously with elected officials, even so far down as to tiny high school athletics, without further discussion? Yes, athletes are worth more than their agents have yet imagined.

In an interview about his particular style of punditry, Stuart Scott remarked that he did not employ his famous quips and exclamations always, at most once per broadcast, revealing a studied professional acumen toward his craft, a respect for his audience, his consumer. His approach was very basic: practice, energy, and love.

“Love for the game” is a phrase attached to sports idols, those who demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice everything to win the game, not only sacrificing the self, but sacrificing with great cheer. Stuart Scott led the way in loving love for the game so that we, his fans, loved him loving love for the game. And so it grew. ESPN is now an empire in no small part because of him.

After all, human existence is in large part living out fantasies and illusions, celebrating growth which will, like Stuart Scott, fade, awaiting the next technological advance, the next cultural progress, exerting effort to lay claim to some sort of meaningfulness in family, work, society, at least a little bit. Unfortunately, the next meaningfulness will be made known after it survives the next big smelting. As Patton quipped famously, “Compared to war, all other human endeavors shrink to insignificance.”

I’m biding time between wars, both hidden, personal wars, and the great outbreaks of human significance, which are sheer and utter destruction, the ashes from which yield something beautiful, flawed and invaluable. Stuart Scott didn’t pretend for one moment that he had anything to contribute, and I, for one, am glad that he did not threaten to become significant. He gave me something to think about in my boredom.

Stuart Scott (d. January 4, 2015), I hope, as you trotted off the field toward that Great Post-Game Press Conference In The Sky, you were greeted by rabidly fanatic angels shaking pompons, shouting your name within a clever, perfunctory rhyme. RIP.