We watch... so you don't have to.

All Sports, All The Time... Except When We're Showing Aerobics

It's hard for young people to realize in this day and age, packed to the rafters as it is with modern wonders of science like the space shuttle and the multi-disc CD player and microwave popcorn, but the technological marvels of recent times weren't always with us. Aeons ago--as far back as 20 years--our forefathers would have dismissed the everyday appliances you and I take for granted as gadgets straight out of a Buck Rogers movie. Their primitive brains could never be expected to grasp complex machinery like the Salad Shooter or the video cassette rewinder. Instead of passing their idle hours enjoying a bloody shoot-em-up on the ol' Sony PlayStations, our ancestors made do with a rudimentary game called Pong. And, most shocking of all, when they wanted to change television channels, many of our forebearers had to get up and turn the knob themselves.

It's true, young people! In hoary days of yore, idly surfing around the TV was a luxury of only the very rich or the mentally disturbed. Common folk--salt-of-the-earth folk--would sit patiently through the entire program and all of the commercials before changing the channel, lest excessively flipping the TV knob turn their once-smooth hands into gnarled little claws.

Thank God you and I don't face that Hobson's choice, young people. We can surf about the TV universe with impunity, flipping from show to show the moment a program begins to lose our interest. We can watch a movie, a sporting event, a banal NBC sitcom... all at the same time. And the minute Joe Pitchman pops up on the TV screen trying to sell us some of his no-account swag, we can turn on over to that rerun of "Down Periscope" on HBO.

Which, of course, is a roundabout way of explaining how the other night when I was channel surfing, I came across a high school cheerleading competition on ESPN.

It was some time after 7 p.m. The outcome of Monday Night Football was no longer in any reasonable doubt. Boomer and Dan were launching into their Abbott & Costello routine. And so I began to sift through the offerings on other channels, in search of a friendly port.

The New Hollywood Squares? Uh... no. A Mad About You rerun? Didn't like the show then, don't like it now. Inside Edition? See you in hell, Deborah Norville.

Which is when I flipped over to ESPN. And I saw the cheerleaders.

The cheerleaders were standing there, resplendent in their cheerleader skirts and cheerleader leotards and those little headbands that cheerleaders are wont to wear. And--in keeping with the age-old customs and fine traditions handed down through the generations, from the first cheerleader to the last--they were leading people in cheers... chanting about "spirit" and informing the audience that "when I say 'Go!' you say 'Cougars!' Go, Cougars, go!" And then--after much cheering and jumping and high leg kicks--the cheerleaders finished their little routine, the audience shrieked in girlish delight and a TV commentator analyzed what we just witnessed in painstaking detail.

"Christian Brothers High is a machine," the commentator enthused. "They don't make many mistakes. They've always got something new. Their performances are emulated by all the teams. Everybody watches them. They want to be like Christian Brothers. And they want to beat them. This is going to be a clear-case of somebody having to do much better than the champion to take the title away."

Oh God, I thought. The booze and pills are finally taking their toll.

But it wasn't the booze... not yet, anyhow. What it turned out to be was the 1998 High School Cheerleading Championships, brought to you by ESPN from Disney's World of Sports in beautiful Orlando, Florida. And for the next hour, cheerleading squads from across the country would go toe to toe in bloodthirsty combat, battling each other before a lusty, raucous crowd just like the gladiators of old.

Each squad would take to the stage and perform a three-minute routine. And for those three minutes of mincing and prancing and gadding about, those cheerleaders left it all on the stage of Disney's World of Sports. Basket tosses, heel stretches, full liberties, one-arm stunts... these guys and gals put their heart into every last spirit-packed pump of their pom poms. At the end of the routine they would be judged, graded on things like form and artistic merit and enthusiasm and just how many times they could destroy the self-esteem of unpopular, socially awkward kids by ostracizing them during homeroom.

Kidding! They didn't grade the cheerleading squads on that last part at all. But wouldn't it have been fun to pretend they did?

As exacting and severe as the judging is in cheerleading competitions, so too is commentary incisive and exhaustive. On this particular broadcast, ESPN featured an earnest play-by-play commentator, whose familiarity with the ins-and-outs of the national cheerleading scene was admirable, if a bit frightening. His color commentator was a woman, perhaps a former cheerleader herself, who, having won fame and fortune on the oft cruel cheerleading circuit, was now cashing in like so many other former athletes before her.

"With the all-girl squads, the emphasis was on synchronized tumbling, on dance and pyramid transitions," the earnest play-by-play guy said, as his partner nodded vigorously. "Now, we're going to add the guys, and you're going to see more strength, a lot of partner stunts and high basket tosses."

Yes. Pyramid transitions. That puts everything into perspective.

The fact that the National High School Cheerleading Championships were being shown on ESPN opposite Monday Night Football was not insignificant. Whenever there's a big sporting event on, be it Sunday pro football or a college bowl game, ESPN--realizing that its core XY-chromosome-bearing audience will be taking their business elsewhere for the next few hours--simply shrugs and slaps on programming designed for a more, um, dainty audience. That means dance competitions, figure skating, Miss Fitness USA pageants and something called Rock 'N Roll Gymnastics where gymnasts dance about a mat to cheesy rock songs. Sports, in other words, for people who hate sports.

The point isn't that I have unresolved issues from my adolescence about cheerleaders. I do, but that's a discussion for another time when trained mental health professions are present. Nor is the point that I think it's somehow abhorrent for cheerleading contests and dance competitions and Miss Fitness USA pageants to have the day in the cable sports sun. Hey, if you can get ESPN to come on down to the gym and film you doing step aerobics for a half-hour, more power to you. The boys from Bristol are free to put any nonsense they want on their little cable channel... with the possible exception of Rock 'N Roll Gymnastics, which combines America's two worst contributions to the 20th Century--gymnastics contests and Michael Bolton songs--into one Reese's peanut buttercup of Evil.

No, the point, friends, is that, unless I've totally misread the pulse of this country, there is no hue and cry for televised coverage of billiards tournaments or the National Jump Rope Championships. People are not scurrying home from work to watch the World's Strongest Man quarterfinals, nor will there be much talk around the water cooler the next morning about last night's big indoor lacrosse tilt. And when ESPN got the brilliant idea a few Thanksgivings back to feature a Skins-style tournament from a miniature golf course, I'm willing to wager that few families took time out from carving up the turkey to see if Joe Duffer could sink that 50-foot putt through the Windmill and into the Clown's Mouth.

The sports deemed TV-worthy used to make up a pretty well-defined universe. You had your Big Four--football, baseball, basketball, hockey. You had your golf and tennis. Every now and again, you had your soccer, your boxing, the occasional auto race. And if you wanted sports that were odd and exotic, well, that's what the Winter Olympic luge finals were for.

But now, anything that features sweaty people, a final score and some jackball in a blazer with a microphone can rate its very own TV coverage. Everything from harness racing to dog shows--dog shows!--can be found on television with just a click of the dial.

The reason is simple. Whereas once ESPN was the only all-sports voice crying out in the cable wilderness, sports channels now pop up as frequently as taut Steven Bocho cop dramas. On my own Los Angeles-based cable system, I can divide my viewing time among ESPN and its hipster cousin, ESPN2. On a regional basis, there's Fox Sports West and-- since one channel simply isn't enough to contain Fox's brand of glib smugness--Fox Sports West 2. There's also Fox Sports Americas, which near as I can figure is glib smugness with a Spanish accent.

That's five channels right there, and I'm not even including ESPNews, CNN/SI and the dozens of regional sports channels that could be mine for the asking if I were to spring for a satellite dish. With all these channels having to come up with 24 hours of sports programming--and because you can only show footage of that press conference where Jimmy Johnson discusses Dan Marino's groin pull so many times--what's an all-sports cable channel to say but, "Stay tuned for live coverage of the Wrangler Jeans Rodeo Pro-Am?"

The epidemic of sports cable channels has become so pervasive that ESPN has now taken to broadcasting decades-old sporting events on its latest venture, ESPNClassic. I think I speak for all Americans when I say that ESPNClassic is perhaps the most insidiously devilish channel in all of creation.

I'll be flipping from channel to channel, with every intention of watching a documentary or something on PBS, when I'll happen across ESPNClassic and they'll be showing something like, say, game six of the '75 World Series.

"Ah, the '75 series," I'll say, totally unaware that sloth is beginning to seize hold of my brain. "The Reds and the Sox in a classic confrontation. Perhaps I'll watch a few minutes of this."

And an hour and twenty minutes later, when Bernie Carbo has hit an improbable pinch-hit home run to tie up the game, I'll still be watching, even though I know full well that come the 11th inning, Carlton Fisk is going to win the game on a solo home run, not that it matters anyhow since the Sox go on to drop game seven since, after all, the athletic event I'm watching intently only took place a quarter of a goddamn century ago.

And yet I'll still watch.

Well, it's simply wrong, all this excess sports programming on TV. I don't care if its a replay of the 1979 Cotton Bowl between Notre Dame and Houston or a pro-beach volleyball tournament live from Redondo Beach, the 24-hour sports cable channels will lead us all to wrack and ruin. For starters, men like myself--lazy, unimaginative men who will watch any televised sporting event no matter the significance or sense of it all--will never get up from the couch again. Chores will be left undone. Fences will go unmended. Oil will sit in the pan, unchanged, long after the car has driven the recommended 3,000 miles.

And the children--oh God, won't someone think of the children? Whereas once the younguns would hit the books or develop a skill to better their lot in life, in the brave new world of all-sports-all-the-time programming, Junior will look to the glamorous life of the pro athlete as the way to easy riches and adoring women. And if you think it's hard to convince the tykes of the importance of algebra and subject-verb agreement now, imagine trying to get them to keep up the school work after Fox Sports Net starts the Professional Greek Dodgeball League or ESPN2 broadcasts the $1 Million Federal Express Tether Ball Championships from Fort Lauderdale.

There's only one thing we can do to avoid such an empty, pitiable fate. We must march straight down to ESPN and tell them, "Hey! No more cheerleading." We must demand that Fox makes do with just one cable channel per market or we'll knock those glibly smug smiles right off their kissers. And we must chase into the sea anyone who ever broadcasts a miniature golf tournament.

We must do all of these things, and I'll certainly be right in front, leading the way. In a few minutes, anyhow, right after this rerun of Home Run Derby on ESPNClassic finishes up.


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