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ESPN needs less entertainment, more conscience

By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2003

ESPN is the best thing that ever happened to American sports. Maybe also the worst.

It seemed such a longshot 25 years ago. Twenty-four hours a day, doing games and jock jabber. I gave it less chance, say, than the Devil Rays to win the AL East next summer.

ESPN showed me. Showed the world. But, at times, the rich and successful cable channel shows us too much. Too much glorifying of violence, too much self-promotion, too much predictable studio-show bombast like featuring dunk after basketball dunk and not nearly enough sporting consciousness.

This is constructive criticism. I'm an ESPN regular, including daily use of its web site. I click to Bristol as often as a Wall Street zealot checks the Dow Jones. ESPN is the pulse of sports.

When it's hot non-sports news, CNN is the place. But when athletics are involved, there's no minute-by-minute source comparable to the Connecticut-based ESPN. Always, we will argue the quality and effectiveness of announcers and editorialists, but that is just another American sport.

But let's get to the nasty stuff that ESPN overuses. Commentators will, at times, decry the very combative material on which the network feasts. Don't be stunned if we soon see advertised some $19.95 videotape entitled "Strong Safeties Who Behead!" or "Baseball's Most Vicious Beanballs!"

ESPN, you should keep violence to a minimum, used only when such smacks are needed to aptly illustrate a story, like the knockout of a QB or a second-base slide that busts a star SS's leg or a boxer biting off somebody's ear. Measure it. Justify it. Understand the real need. Don't just use it for yuk value. Be a better custodian.

ESPN, the acronym, means "Entertainment and Sports Programming Network." Often, the entertainment part is ridden too hard. Many ESPN promos are creative, effective and hilarious, but now the network is trying too hard to be The Comedy Channel.

To a point, I'm okay with the "ESPYs," a yearly honoring of sports achievers where trophies the Bristol house named itself are presented to jocks wearing tuxedos and gowns. Even if, like with all TV awards shows, the schmaltz is overdone.

The ESPYs show triggers memorable moments, the most lasting being N.C. State basketball coach Jim Valvano, his body savaged by cancer, making a never-give-up speech that melted your heart and had an audience of famous performers flooded with tears.

My plea is for ESPN to more deeply examine itself, checking its mirrors for consciousness. There are terrific shows like Outside the Lines, which address bubbling issues, but ESPN should operate with much more in that spirit. America's most pulsating electronic sports news source should strive to be the No. 1 caretaker.

BOB WON'T STOOPS FOR MONEY: Another trend-altering January is gone, with more rumored $4-million NFL opportunities for Bob Stoops, but cheers for Oklahoma's national championship coach for staying normal in Norman.

Steve Spurrier finally went, getting $5-million a season, but for him it was time. Always, a churning desire rumbled within the Florida Gators coach to show the pros that his schtick would click in the NFL. His first Redskins term was lukewarm, but S.O.S. learned and will evolve. I'm convinced, he will succeed in Washington.

Stoops is different. Spurrier is an offensive professor but Bobby lives on defense. If he'd gone to the Jacksonville Jaguars or Cincinnati Bengals or San Francisco 49ers, there would have been some major discomforts. Stoops would have been much farther from his cozy zone than NFL rookie Spurrier. Just as John McKay was in leaving Southern California for the Bucs so long ago.

Stoops is extremely smart. He would've adapted in the NFL, but college football is far less a risk for the Sooners coach. He makes $2-million at OU, so who needs more? To leap for twice the money could be the playing of some sort of egomaniacal pinball game. Trying just to run up the financial score.

Bobby is right to keep refusing NFL gold to stay at Oklahoma. He's not like Jimmy Johnson or Tom Coughlin or even Spurrier, for whom Stoops was once defensive coordinator at UF. Just like Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden and Bear Bryant.

Whatever happened to Lou Saban?

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