The Mercy Rule

Chris Berman Will Decide Our Nation's Fate

By David Roth

Image by Alex Cook

There is, right now, a man's voice on the radio, confident and heavy on the bass. There's another voice over the phone—tinnier, reedier, narrower because of the being-on-the-phone thing, but also because the voice on the phone is distraught. Something terrible has happened, something that has shaken a belief system or exposed some invidious rot or otherwise cast a harsh light on the criminal passivity—criminal is a hard word, sure, but look at the facts—of unaccountable elites. The voice on the phone demands action and the boomier voice in the studio doesn't promise it, can't promise it, and so just leads the fuming, snorting, rage-blinded caller around the ring for inspection a couple of times and then puts him down. Then it happens again, and then again after that, until whatever sports talk radio show this is—check your local listings, it's definitely there—has reached the bottom of the appointed hour, and someone else takes over. Sports radio sounds like political talk radio, and political talk radio sounds like sports radio, and all of it is awful—fake, cruel, dumb, and loud. Imagine Donald Trump revving a jet engine, over and over, except that instead of instead of generating thrust, the engine just produces weird unconscious racism. That's it.

All this talking about sports as if the stakes were in any way commensurate with those of politics is, mostly, funny—all these seething dads gnawing through their stomach linings because they aren't sure they can really trust Joe Flacco, speculating darkly about the AFC South in a tone usually reserved for the discussion of missing nuclear warheads, calling into the regional “Screecher and the Boof” drive-time duo to cast bitter accusations at whichever offensive tackle on the Philadelphia Eagles is currently underperforming most disgracefully. But talking about politics as if it were sports seems incalculably worse. The common thread between the two is a dedication to missing the point as loudly as possible—making small things too big in the former case, and treating legitimately momentous things like a particularly interesting Jacksonville Jaguars game in the latter.

It's fucked, pretty much all of it, from the sad dads with their bottomless anger at Andy Reid to the khaki-clad chorus that is the political press, smirk-singing Raffi's "Bananaphone" over and over again and insisting that it's Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. But at least all of the above will get a perfect apotheosis tonight, when Monday Night Football airs the pre-recorded interviews Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have just now done with ESPN's Chris Berman—a man who has the coloration and analytical savvy of a yam that has been soaked in Dewar's for a month and then taught how to make puns.

This is, it should be noted, entirely too banal to be an actual evil. Even if Berman were overtly partisan—and while Berman has mastered a combination of relentless pratfalling clownishness and grandiose self-regard most frequently seen in long-tenured US Senators, he doesn't seem terribly political—the rigid message discipline of ESPN would not allow him to do anything about it. Football has its own politics, of course—its own little idiotic culture wars, its own glib and goofy version of patriotism. College football, more even than the NFL, functions as a sort of sad-parody substitute for politics in much of the country. To the extent that ESPN itself has politics, they are the corporate kind—inherently conservative in that they're directed towards self-preservation, enhancement of the brand, leveraged synergies, and other barfy jargonic concepts, but mostly emptied of any political view. Nothing surprising or pointed or illuminating will be said during these interviews any more than any such thing is ever said on ESPN.

So Berman will ask the candidates about sports, and they'll wearily smile through some quips about end zones and fourth-and-goals or the fantasy teams they claim to have or whatever; in 2008, John McCain actually said to Berman, on the day before people were supposed to vote for him, "I want [voters] to think: He. Could. Go. All. The. Way. To the White House." There will be the spectacle of bone-tired rich men who believe they're above all this attempting to bro down with an entire nation at once. Berman's serious question will be about what the candidates would change in sports, and Obama will say something about concussions in football and Romney will say something about his dedication to eradicating the pernicious influence of performance-enhancing drugs in yachting, and then mention the Salt Lake City Olympics. It will all be—in the way that this entire endless campaign has been—a display of wearily calculated artifice broadcast to parallel audiences, which is to say a big, cynical bummer.

But how much of a bummer this truly will be depends on how much umbrage you can muster at the idea of Chris Berman—a man paid millions of dollars, that he quite clearly believes he deserves to make, in exchange for yelling cartoon sounds and comparing the names of defensive backs to Fleetwood Mac songs—getting to talk to the future President of the United States. It's ridiculous, and not just because Chris Berman really shouldn't be allowed to talk to anyone except Merrill Hoge and a team of psychotherapists. But the saddening thing about this, which is also the maddening thing about it, is how much sense these conversations make, and just how much this campaign belongs on ESPN. All the misperceptions and misprioritizations that gave us the national conversation we have—sports treated with the gravity and passion that's rightly the province of politics, politics treated with the chuckling abstraction that belongs to sports, and all of it treated as a queasy strain of mostly un-entertaining entertainment—naturally lead to this. As memorable pre-election moments go, Chris Berman laugh-shouting a question about the Atlanta Falcons to Mitt Romney, and Romney giving an answer about teacher's unions isn't one any person would want. But it does, in retrospect, seem to be the one we've been working towards for some time now.

@David_J_Roth

Previously: Champions and Winners

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