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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
By Eric Deggans, Times TV/Media Critic
Published June 25, 2007
Shaquille O'Neal puts obese Broward County children through their paces.
On TV Shaq's Big Challenge debuts at 9 p.m. Tuesday on WFTS-Ch. 28.
His voice is a disconnected monotone. He sounds as if he couldn't care less about whatever it is he's talking about.
But Shaquille O'Neal insists that helping six Broward County youngsters shed their flab in a reality TV show called Shaq's Big Challenge galvanized him, pushing the Miami Heat center to develop a wellness plan for children statewide.
O'Neal is scheduled to meet with Gov. Charlie Crist on Wednesday "I'm going in the governor's office butt-naked, so he'll talk to me, " he says during one cheeky clip from the TV show. He hopes to persuade Crist, who appointed him to his council of Physical Fitness earlier this year, to back an array of ideas developed during the show, including mandatory physical education classes and improved nutrition in cafeterias.
It's tough to judge whether this is a substantive initiative or a well-played publicity stunt, because O'Neal, TV producers and state officials are tight-lipped about what exactly the star will be asking the governor to do. ABC officials say they don't want to telegraph the six-part series' finale.
"I thought it was a beautiful idea, because childhood obesity is an epidemic that is sweeping the nation, " said O'Neal, who peppered a conference call with reporters last week with statistics he picked up working on the show. ". . . We just want to promote activeness and healthiness."
A dose of skepticism seems in order. Two years ago, O'Neal was shilling for Burger King, and his past endorsements have included Pepsi and Taco Bell. Remember the commercials with him and Hakeem Olajuwon wearing propeller hats and riding a bike? Even now, at more than 7 feet tall and 335 pounds, O'Neal looks like he could benefit a little from the fitness advice he's handing out (he claims to have under 14 percent body fat).
A look at two advance episodes brings more questions. Though an Internet search on "childhood, " "obesity" and "Florida" unearths a wealth of institutions and agencies working on the problem, O'Neal is shown spending an entire afternoon dialing hospitals to find a physician expert on the issue.
When O'Neal first visits the kids who will take part in his program - driving around Broward County in a sleek, black Escalade SUV - he comes upon one child eating a cheeseburger, with fries under the bun. Another kid's family rolls out an expansive Cuban dinner filled with starchy, fattening foods.
Are these genuine moments, or scenes staged for the camera?
Based on a British reality show led by former soccer star Ian Wright, O'Neal's series unfolds like a kid-friendly version of NBC's weight loss show Biggest Loser. An array of experts help develop fitness plans over the course of a school year for the kids, who have 30 to 50 percent body fat.
"For the first time in history, kids will die younger than their parents, " reads one ominous voice-over. "Schools, families and even the government have done virtually nothing to fight this crippling disease."
The NBA star and his producer said they hoped to dismantle a "fast food" culture, offering nutritional solutions that might cost schools 1 to 10 cents more per student.
"I was most surprised by what they were serving for lunch every day, " said O'Neal. "It was sort of like fast food. We live in a society where it's easy to put bad things in your body and sit down and do nothing."
Local experts in school nutrition were happy to see a star of O'Neal's magnitude raising awareness about child obesity. But with nutritional guidelines set by the federal government and individual menu choices made locally, it is unclear how much impact a state plan might have.
"We want to do something about the obesity crisis . . . (but) children's eating patterns have been set, sometimes before they get to kindergarten, " said Gray Miller, director of food services for Pinellas County schools, noting that lunchroom menus strike a balance between nutrition and what kids will actually eat.
Miller also noted a 5-cent increase in daily food costs per student could add up to about $450, 000 annually for Pinellas County. Marykate Harrison, the general manager of student nutrition for Hillsborough County schools, advocated national nutritional standards that would cover vending machines, cafeteria goodies sold a la carte and even food handed out in classrooms.
"We're sending a lot of mixed messages to kids; you can go from the classroom to the hallway to the cafeteria and get three different messages (about nutrition), " Harrison said. "Schools make a lot of money on vending machines and other sales . . . (but) you can't sell out children's health."
So the question remains: What can O'Neal and ABC accomplish toward curbing child obesity that Crist and Jeb Bush - who formed a task force on obesity in 2003 - can't?
"Honestly, the entire series is the process of figuring out the answer to exactly that question, " said Challenge executive producer Rick Ringbakk. "We look forward to finding common solutions."
Here's hoping those solutions keep coming after the cameras are turned off.