Saturday, October 20, 2007

Spoiled Sport

Recently The Washington Post Sunday Magazine called for column submissions from readers. I'm not sure if they really wanted to hold an open audition, or just get stuff to make fun of, but either way, I decided to send them something. There was strict word limit of 750 words. My first pass at the story was 970 words. I edited it down several times but couldn't get below 762. With the deadline upon me, I sent it in 12 words over - which probably dooms me, but it was a fun editing exercise, if nothing else. This is a version somewhere in the middle that I kind of liked. It's 788 words. There you go.

I enjoy sports, but I’m not a fanatic – not by a long shot. I don’t dwell on sports, I don’t pour over statistics and I rarely crack the sports pages. I’d rather help my wife get ready for a yard sale than watch any kind of basketball game. I can’t imagine a scenario where I would ever watch ESPN Classic. The world is moving too fast for me to dwell on a game from eight years ago – once it’s over, it’s over.

Aficionados may say that makes me a casual fan – one who doesn’t appreciate the artistry of the plays and the coaching decisions. To that I say, we’re having a yard sale in a few weeks – you should come by.

But I do love competition; the ebb and flow of the battle – the stinging defeat or joyous victory. Sports are the ultimate reality television – competition with uncertain outcomes, unfolding right before your eyes. Throw in a dash of patriotism, like during an international competition and you could not ask for anything more.

And so it was with great excitement last month that I headed into the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup soccer tournament being staged in China. I’m a recent soccer convert, having discovered the game only in the last few years when my two daughters began playing. They love the game, and their enthusiasm has proved contagious.

This summer we poured over the FIFA and ESPN and US Soccer webpages to make sure the women’s games would be broadcast. They would! Some tape delayed, some live. Nothing to worry about.

The U.S. team’s first game, against North Korea (ooh, added geo-political drama), was going to be played on the morning of September 11th (so much drama!) and broadcast that evening. My daughters and I made a date to meet that afternoon in front of the T.V. with popcorn, soda, and hot dogs, ready to bond and watch the drama unfold. While they were at school I decided to watch one of the other exciting games being broadcast live.

And then something happened. Something that changed me in a profound way. To my absolute horror, ESPN put the results of the USA game on the bottom of the screen. I was dumbfounded. I could see them ruining it for people if the game was being broadcast on another network – but this was going to be on their network – that same channel – in a few hours. What could have possessed them to spoil the outcome for their now less-engaged audience?

I tried to forget, but the score kept flashing in my mind. I considered hitting myself with a hammer until I did forget, but what if I didn’t get ESPN in my hospital room? I’d miss the rebroadcast. The game was basically ruined for me, but I’d put on a good face for my girls, pretend I didn’t know, get some quality time with them, and watch some good, if anti-climactic soccer.

Three days later the U.S. would take on Sweden. This game would be broadcast live at 5 a.m. so we would Tivo it and watch it after school that day. Again, there were other games I wanted to watch during the day, but now I am wiser - I would construct a shield to block out the crawl on the bottom of the screen! Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.

My shield (Xbox game cases) was working perfectly and the England – Germany game was thrilling. And then, once again, the unthinkable: for no apparent reason, the announcer blurted out the outcome of the U.S. game.

When I came to, I was lying spread-eagled on my living room floor, a crushed bag of chips beneath my chest. ESPN was not going to give me a break.

Is it so much to ask that the announcer say, “hey, I’m about to tell you what happened in the game this morning – if you don’t want to know because you plan on watching later – mute your set or cover your ears for 20 seconds.” In fact, don’t the networks covering the Olympics from distant time zones do that exactly?

Yes, they do. I pointed this out in a hotly worded email to ESPN. I haven’t heard back yet. I picture an intern laughing at me and going back to cross-referencing batting averages and moon phases from the 1952-53 baseball season.

The semi-finals were coming, and I knew what I had to do. I would completely avoid television and radio all morning. It would have worked too, except for a random headline on a random webpage, “Brazil Routs USA.”

That muffled scream you heard on Thursday, September 27th at about 11 a.m? That was me.

788 words