ESPN, easily the most dependable network on television, was an important part of my life when I was a youngster. If ever I found myself bored or in need of a sports fix, I could turn to ESPN. I grew up on Chris Berman, Craig Kilborn, Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick, often watching the same edition of “SportsCenter” three or more times a day. It was funny and entertaining, but at the same time professional and informative – call it a perfect blend.
To this day, I still begin every morning with SportsCenter. While the new class of anchors and commentators isn’t quite as talented or engaging as those of yesteryear, there’s still something familiar and comfortable about ESPN.
But I was a little worried when the network announced that Rush Limbaugh would be joining the crew of ESPN’s football preview show “Sunday NFL Countdown.” Certainly Rush knows his football, and his politics are irrelevant. Rush’s problem lies in the fact that he can’t keep his political opinions to himself.
Watching Rush Limbaugh on “Sunday NFL Countdown” was like watching someone play Russian roulette (more on that later) – it was only a matter of time before Rush said something insanely stupid and the gun went off.
The end came sooner than even I expected, when last week Limbaugh said, while commenting on Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, “I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve.” You didn’t really expect Rush to play nice and simply talk football, did you? Facing discontent among his “Countdown” cohorts, Limbaugh resigned his position at ESPN shortly after making the comment.
I watched Limbaugh on ESPN for the same reason I watch George W. Bush’s speeches: to see him screw up. Of course he’ll have nothing insightful to say, so I just lay in wait for that inevitable snafu.
It’s unfortunate that my beloved ESPN had to be the vehicle for such perverse pleasure, but not even ESPN can escape the vicious cycle created by reality TV; we as an audience delight in the misery and endangerment of others. This mentality gave rise to the Jerry Springers and “Fear Factors” of the world, providing a never-ending stream of suffering and peril to revel in.
Until recently, the particular brands of misery and endangerment that we so enjoy have been comparatively insubstantial. The situations presented on “Springer” and “Fear Factor” are wholly concocted for entertainment purposes.
But with the application of the reality TV audience’s mentality to events that are really real, a terrifying new type of audience is born. The line between reality and “reality” becomes obscured. It’s easy to watch and laugh as some toothless wonder embarrasses himself on “The Jerry Springer Show” – the worst that can happen to him is he gets scratched by his catty ex-wife. But Rush Limbaugh’s career could very well be over in light of recent events. It all sounds so hilarious until you remember that an actual person’s well-being is at stake.
Even some perceptive enough to grasp the reality of the situation want to see Rush in even more pain. ESPN.com Page 2 columnist Ralph Wiley wrote upon Limbaugh’s firing, “I didn’t want Rush to quit. I wanted him to stand in there and be forced to take it for the full 12 rounds. See how bad it would get – like when your friend keeps double-or-nothing raising against your pat straight flush.”
With real people like Limbaugh inadvertently stealing the spotlight, entertainers are forced to take their performances to absurd heights just to get a rise out of today’s audiences. Last Sunday night, Britain’s Channel Four showed self-described “psychological illusionist” Derren Brown playing a game of Russian roulette. A randomly selected person loaded one bullet into a revolver, which Brown then put to his head. He squeezed the trigger four times before removing the gun from his head and firing a live round into a nearby wall.
Meanwhile back in the United States, “Hell on Earth,” a small-time industrial rock band planned to have a terminally ill fan commit suicide onstage during the band’s show in St. Petersburg, Fla. When the St. Petersburg City Council stepped in to prevent the show from going on, band member Billy Tourtelot issued a statement saying, “This is about standing up for what you believe in, and I am a strong supporter of physician-assisted suicide.” How bohemian.
Publicity stunts or not, these two events illustrate the perverse heights to which modern-day freaks are willing to go. Bearded ladies and sword swallowers just can’t cut it anymore. Pretty soon, if people aren’t actually dying, we won’t be watching.
Hoard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.