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The Inside Track | Mike Penner SOUND AND VISION

Carnival Act on ESPN Degenerates Into a Circus

October 04, 2003|Mike Penner

ESPN's "Sunday NFL Countdown" plays short-handed this weekend, which isn't a bad thing for a network that forgot a long time ago that less is often more. As you probably heard, the "Countdown" team put this name on the "physically unable to perform" list this week:

Rush Limbaugh (foot in mouth).

It has been an interesting week for ESPN. What began as a weeklong celebration for the 10th anniversary of ESPN2 abruptly U-turned into awkward damage control after ESPN Gone 2 Far. "Happy birthday to us, happy birthday to us, is there anybody out there who can save us from ourselves?"

Let's go to the videotape. On Sunday's "Countdown," Limbaugh set out to do what he was hired by ESPN to do -- turn the network's once-respected NFL pregame show into a cheesy carnival act. Step right up! Step right up! You, with the big mouth! Get up here and throw some beanbags and try to knock over the former Pro Bowl players sitting there like metal milk bottles!

For three weeks, ESPN execs lapped it up and yukked it up, congratulating themselves for their freak-show hire and the boost in the ratings -- look at those 18-to-34 male numbers! -- that came with it. It was the embodiment of everything that's wrong with the new ESPN, Mark Shapiro's ESPN: gimmick-driven, soulless, a depressingly cynical landscape where nothing is too crass to keep off the air if the ratings are high enough.

Then Limbaugh, being Limbaugh, played the race card, suggesting Philadelphia Eagle quarterback Donovan McNabb was overrated because "the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. They're interested in black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well. I think there's a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of his team that he really didn't deserve."

Initially, the "Countdown" panel of Tom Jackson, Michael Irvin and Steve Young sat there like metal milk bottles. Eventually, Jackson bristled and entered the fray, arguing that, no, McNabb wasn't overrated, those winning seasons at Philadelphia didn't happen by accident. But no one on the set confronted the racial aspect of Limbaugh's assertion.

Their silence spoke volumes about a bad experiment that was now exploding in ESPN's faces. You could almost hear their minds grinding: This is a football show. We're talking defensive tackles here, not sociopolitical agendas. What is he doing here? What are we doing here? What happened to the Eagles at the Bills? We're supposed to be talking about the Eagles at the Bills. We're supposed to be talking football.

All right, let's talk football. McNabb has played in the Pro Bowl three times. The media had nothing to do with that. Fans, players and coaches handle Pro Bowl voting. McNabb began this season with the third-lowest interception rate in NFL history. The media had nothing to do with that, either, except, maybe, to report it.

In 2000 and 2001, when McNabb, supported by a minimal ground game and a mixed bag of receivers, passed and scrambled the Eagles into two playoff berths and one NFC final, there was no more valuable player in the league. At worst, he is among the NFL's top half-dozen quarterbacks. And the media are propping him up?

Right. The same way the media have been propping up Barry Bonds and Eric Gagne and Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal and Martin Brodeur. What have those guys ever done?

It was pure gibberish, as factually accurate as Limbaugh's claim a week earlier that St. Louis had failed to reach the Super Bowl with Mike Martz as head coach. Quick fact check: Martz and the Rams lost to New England in the Super Bowl ... 20 months ago.

Granted, McNabb didn't have a great September. Neither did Limbaugh. But an NFL season is a long haul. Odds are, McNabb will still be playing in January. Limbaugh didn't make it to Columbus Day.

Sunday, ESPN promises its "Countdown" crew will comment on the Limbaugh controversy, now that everyone has had a week to mull it over. Better late than never.

Also available for viewing this weekend:

TODAY

* Evander Holyfield versus James Toney

(Pay per view, 5 p.m.)

How much would you pay to watch two aging boxers tenderize one another? Showtime is asking $44.95. For the same amount, you can invest in another aging boxer and buy one of those handy George Foreman grills -- they go for $24.95 -- and still have enough left over to feed a family of four.

* USC at Arizona State

(Channel 7, 12:30 p.m.)

Yeah, yeah, the Pac-10 is a demanding conference. It's balanced, it's rugged, it's the reason no Pac-10 team has qualified to play in the BCS title game. We know. But losing to Cal? Kansas State scheduled Cal. How tough can Cal be?

* Washington at UCLA

(Fox Sports Net, 3:30 p.m.)

Obviously, the new Bruin offense isn't getting it done. There's an offensive coordinator available who could help. His name is Bob Toledo.

* Oakland A's at Boston Red Sox

(ESPN2, 4:30 p.m.)

It's do or die for the Red Sox, down 0-2 in this best-of-five series. Appropriately enough, today's Oakland starting pitcher is named Lilly.

* New York Yankees at Minnesota Twins

(ESPN, 10 a.m.)

Curse of the Bambino? Joe Torre can tell you a thing or two about the curse of working for George Steinbrenner.

SUNDAY

* Oakland Raiders at Chicago Bears

(Channel 2, 10 a.m.)

From a CBS news release: "Marcus Allen will be in Chicago to report on the Bears' season so far." So far? The new stadium is ugly and so is the team that plays there. Could be a short report.

* United States versus Germany

(ESPN2, 4:30 p.m.)

The bracket says it's the semifinals, but ESPN's soccer announcers keep telling us that this is "the real Women's World Cup final." So, to those who already spent $75-$400 for a ticket to next Sunday's match at the Home Depot Center in Carson: Sorry about that.

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