September 26, 2006 — Leave it to ESPN and the marketing guys at the NFL to turn something that, left alone, might be breathtaking, to an event so over-hyped, over-pimped and bloated with self-congratulatory back slapping that it defeated the very triumph it had been produced to praise: this evening, which was so wonderful because it gave the citizens of New Orleans a distraction from their devastation, just couldn’t stop distracting them from football.

Maybe its my own fault. I tuned in expecting to see a football game. Sure, I thought, there will be some coverage of Katrina. There will be a few survivor interviews, a few sentiments expressed, a continued plea for financial help. There will probably be a wonderful halftime tribute. This will all be good. Then I heard U2 was going to play.

Uh oh. (When did U2 become officially contractually obligated to play all the “celebrate recovering from disaster” sporting events? They did the 9-11 Super Bowl, and they did this. When something horrible happens, do they just sigh, and mark on their calendar a concert in that location a year or so after the tragedy?)

There was U2.

And then there was Green Day. And Tom Benson, the Saints owner, dancing with the cheerleaders and a Saints umbrella. And I thought: this is all good. I bet this makes a lot of people in New Orleans really happy. And I meant it.

But it kept coming. And coming. Chris Berman lecturing on the racial makeup of America. Tirico and Theisman, at every juncture, reminding us that this was “more than just a football game.” Cutaways to Suzy Kolber on the sidelines, always ready with a story and statistic about the devastation. Every announcer, every analyst, repeating the refrain that this kind of distraction was exactly what New Orleans needed.

You don’t need to be a literature major to recognize the blatant, painful irony in this broadcast. New Orleans did need a football game. A hard-hitting, exciting, elegant, intense football game. They got a made-for-TV healing pageant that exploited their pain for ratings. And it was ugly.

Don’t get me wrong; the Saints return to the Superdome was a story, and a good one, especially considering the countless refugees housed in the building during Katrina’s wrath. ESPN had a duty to cover that social aspect of the football game, and its impact on the communities involved. But, their coverage of the evening repeatedly revealed a perilous internal contradiction in their production. If what New Orleans needs is football, then in God’s name, let them have football.

If you had just had your heartbroken by a beautiful woman or man who revealed themselves to be a hideous snake, you might feel good if your friends wanted to take you out for a night on the town as a distraction. You’d be confused when they started telling you every 2 minutes “I’m so glad we can take you out for this distraction so we can take your mind off all the horrible pain and suffering you went through at the hands of ________ (insert hideous snake’s name here.)”

ESPN has now held broadcasts of Monday Night Football for three weeks, since acquiring air rights from their parent company, ABC. And one must wonder, just three weeks in: is this soap opera approach to broadcasting the long term future of American sports’ most enduring regular sports event?

ABC didn’t have this problem with Monday Night Football. It had three hours of football programming a week: the Monday Night game. It didn’t have three channels of 24 hour programming that required around-the-clock angles, human interest stories, personal dramas, and a soap opera approach to the sport that is now, unequivocally, America’s game. Sure, ABC used its angles. But the producers of that show knew their job: to report a story that included the outside world, but saw it with football as its centerpiece.

Now, as I finish this column, its 2:13 AM, and ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser is still raging on about the hurricane, the devastation and the healing, the heartbreak and the hand-holding, the death and the recovery. And somewhere, a citizen of New Orleans is fading to sleep, just wishing he’d start talking about football.

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