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Take It Easy

There’s a sports writer on television yelling at me, which means it must be just another day.

Some team must have lost recently, which means between one and eight players, coaches and front office personnel from that team probably needs to be benched, fired or eaten by wolves. Why? Because Jay freakin’ Mariotti said so.

Look, we all have opinions and we’re entitled to let them be heard. I would know – I’ve run this web site for the past six years as a forum to spout off my opinions in columns like this one. Theoretically, I want to make a living writing columns, mainly because I’d get that sweet head shot beside every story I write, even if it’s actually just a feature story (**cough** Rob Oller **cough**).

But the fact is that people are forcing it these days. We’ve gotten to the point where overanalysis has become the norm, where reading too much into things is commonplace. Ordinary events – wins, losses, position changes, coaching changes – are blown so far out of proportion these days that it’s become hard to decipher what’s actually newsworthy. No sport has become a victim of this type of turbo-journalism more than football, and in particular, professional football. This is nothing that’s come about in the past few weeks; I even wrote about this subject two years ago.

Take, for example, the “Teams at 20” segment we’ve got on ESPN on Monday afternoons. Basically, every 20 minutes between 5 p.m. and the start of the Monday Night Football game at 8:30, we’ve got some 30-second story on each team. Even if we hadn’t already been bombarded with NFL coverage for the past 30 hours, these type of pieces are still just uninteresting, undeveloped bits of information with one or two quotes that are so generic that can just see Randy Moss scanning the locker room for the nearest exit as Rachel Nichols is asking him for the 19th time this week about how much he misses Tom Brady.

And why are those quotes generic? Because any remotely honest comment that makes it onto a reporter’s tape recorder will inevitably get the responsible player ripped to shreds in the media, often times to the point that the organization feels compelled to discipline the player on their own. In the media, we want these types of quotes, but we’re making things almost impossible for ourselves by berating the few athletes who are candid with us.

Think about Larry Hughes, who admitted last year that he valued enjoying the game more than winning. Whether or not you would only care about winning (and none of us really know how we would feel unless we’ve played in the league for a few years like Hughes), the guy was simply telling the truth, and nothing has really changed by him saying it. He’s still going to play the same way he did before he said it. Take it easy.

In addition to things like “Teams at 20,” you’ve got somewhere around three or four hours per day, on the ESPN networks alone, of shows that are purely discussion (things like Rome is Burning, Around the Horn, Pardon The Interruption, First Take). I’m all for having a variety of opinions, because obviously one or two talking heads shouldn’t get that much influence, but do they each need a 30-minute show every day as a forum? When PTI burst onto the scene a few years back, it was innovative and unique; now, by the time PTI reaches the air, we’ve heard so many opinions on each and every one of those topics that it’s hard to stomach another half-hour (especially when you’ve got a stomach filled with Skip Bayless and Jim Rome).

That leads me into the reason for all of this, which is simple: there is just too much coverage. I love sports, and I’ve loved them my whole life. I’m not old enough to remember the days before ESPN, but I sure can remember the days when we had only one ESPN, when Sportscenter lasted 30 minutes, when FoxSportNet was just a channel you hit by mistake (oh, wait, that part is still the same). I’m not sure where the point was, but there was a point where we had enough sports coverage, and we have now gone well beyond it.

Now that we’ve got to fill up 24 hours a day on somewhere around eight sports networks in any given area, the stations have opted for these discussion shows as well as so-called “analysis” from every retired professional athlete who can put on a suit and tie. Add to that the competition among newspapers, sports news web sites and blogs, and you’ve got a situation where writers feel compelled to react vehemently and immediately to any and all sports-related events.

On any given day, at least half the teams competing are not going to win (some will tie). Just because a team loses a game doesn’t mean something has gone terribly wrong or that the team is headed into a downward spiral. Keep in mind that no team has ever gone undefeated in the NFL in a 16-game regular season (and most Super Bowl champions end up with three to five losses). When the Steelers dropped to 6-3 last Sunday, I had to listen to an ESPN tease asking me to stay tuned to hear “what’s going wrong with the Steelers.” Out of 31 other teams, only three currently have better records than the Steelers – so how wrong can things really be?

Last Tuesday afternoon, following the 49ers five-point loss to the Cardinals on MNF, I hear Doug Gottlieb (a former college basketball player) proclaim that this was the worst-run football team he’s ever seen. The Cardinals were 5-3 coming into the game; the 49ers were 2-6, and yet they hung with the Cardinals on the road. Still, all we hear about is how the organization is in shambles because the team got stuffed from the 2-yard-line as time expired. If they get in on that play, I can guarantee that Gottlieb is sitting there touting Mike Singletary as a miracle-worker who has this team in striking distance of a wild-card bid.

But this isn’t about Gottlieb. It’s about the fact that the sports media culture as a whole needs to change. The choice was made somewhere along the line to sacrifice perspective for sensationalism, and it’s got us headed in a bad direction. So, hey, members of the media: take it easy.

Anders Larson Archive