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Only in U.S. can they leave you wanting less

December 26, 2007|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

LONDON -- The culture shocks of moving to the United Kingdom include the mercilessness of the clouds, the loudness of besotted revelers on night trains and the scarceness of media access to the English Premier League soccer players.

In contrast to bizarre societies such as, say, ours, reporters have no access to EPL team locker rooms after matches. Players do not stand half-naked and freshly shampooed behind phalanxes of microphones. Citizens do not eat their breakfast cereal while numbly watching highlight shows that include athletes mumbling piffle while standing half-naked and freshly shampooed before microphones.

You watch a match, then you might get one player stopping by for a TV reporter. The player will speak. He will achieve a level of banality that might go into your ears and turn your brain into clotted cream. He will scurry off. The managers will speak.

Players have so few promotional obligations that I once realized I'd lived in England for months without so much as hearing the voice of Manchester United star Wayne Rooney, even though he's so wildly famous that his fiancee got a column in a magazine in which she once recounted flying home from the World Cup to get her roots redone.

It can make an American wonder how the English Premier League can have players so distant yet tower over the Earth as the planet's foremost sports league, some 600 million having watched Arsenal vs. Manchester United on Nov. 4 even though those two will play again this season.

Maybe it's partly to do with the stars' unfamiliarity lending a mystery that sustains a want.

It also can make an American notice that sports in the two countries just sound different, and that we're infinitely more clattering, unless you count the besotted on night trains. As forms of media and numbers of media have burgeoned, we Yanks have lived for years beneath a gathering deluge of hackneyed utterances from athletes and coaches who, in their defense, usually concentrate too much on their jobs to be mulling ways to edify us.

It's not that most aren't well-meaning; it's just that I wonder how long a nation can sustain brain-deadening pearls such as these from last Sunday in the NFL alone:

"We like being in control of our destiny."

(Really? I much prefer getting flung out of a teacup ride.)

"Not only do we want to get back [to the playoffs], we want to get back and win."

(Well, if you'd said you wanted to lose early and go catch summer in Rio de Janeiro, I wouldn't be entirely unforgiving.)

"We all knew we wanted to win this game."

(Thank goodness, because one backup tight end didn't really want to last week.)

The Falcons-Cardinals game Sunday featured one player thanking a deity for his pivotal field goals and another wondering why a deity didn't want his team to win, when everybody knows that a Falcons-Cardinals game generally ranks among the world's leading cases for atheism.

And then, as the dreaded coup de grace, Monday night brought this trite old assessment, in this case describing Denver's John Lynch:

"He's a competitor."

(Come to think of it, hearing the meaningless "He's a competitor" for years upon years of sports telecasts alone might make a proud republic die of severe gobbledygook.)

If you're not careful, the drivel can swarm you. It can force you into grave predicaments like accidentally listening to parts of a Bill Belichick media briefing while knowing this might kill more of your brain cells than those plastic trash cans of grain-alcohol fruit punch from college.

Years pass, and you're watching games and finding it perfectly normal that somebody's interviewing the coach on his way to halftime. He's saying they made four turnovers, which you just saw, and that they'll need to make fewer than four turnovers in the second half. You're hearing the obvious yet again. You're undergoing anesthesia.

I suppose you could change the channel, but then you'd always run the risk of encountering something even more demoralizing, like a member of Congress.

In fairness, managers and athletes do get barraged with questions in a way that makes Joe Torre's equanimity seem beyond impressive to the point of staggering. They're not worthy of sympathy; more media means more money. Yet even with all the mouths talking, reporters in many sports will tell you that quality access keeps shrinking since the 1980s. We see sports figures more yet know them less.

So much have we citizens listened to athletes who have listened to PR handlers that it stunted our thinking on the paramount issue of the age, performance-enhancing drugs.

Inculcated with the nonsense they peddled, we actually nodded at -- or repeated -- such pointlessness as, "But they've tested me 100 times" (a show tune from Lance Armstrong, among others) and, "But drugs can't help you hit a baseball" (a tune even more gratingly replayed than "Piano Man").

Further gumming up our thinking, we saw and heard athletes so chronically on our ever-expanding TV screens that it inflated the plausibility of their denials. We had to get through the disintegration of compelling old denials from Rafael Palmeiro to Marion Jones to Andy Pettitte before we could learn to be studious readers of denial. You want to believe people you think you sort of know and pretty much like.

Guess English soccer reporters and fans wouldn't have that problem.

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