By the New York Bureau Chief
CR’s lackluster sports coverage is a pet issue of our Los Angeles Bureau Chief, but after watching our man’s extended interview with CBS play-by-play guru Jim Nantz, I feel compelled to beat the LABC to our shared critical cannon. This is the opening salvo in what I imagine will be a protracted war.
Jim Nantz, longtime CBS company man and baritone-voiced broadcaster, is not a great interview—he spends too much time being professionally boring on TV to have a shot at spontaneity. And in the opening minutes of the program, Charlie seems intent on showing just how boring Nantz can be, prompting him with the kind of “shucks, that Mark Sanchez sure is poised” clichés that Nantz mouths constantly during his on-air hours.
But Nantz is merely being Nantz—a known commodity. It’s Charlie who reveals himself as a football dunce (or badly unprepared) in the opening minutes. First he makes the understandable but telling mistake of pluralizing (or making possessive, or making plural and possessive?) Chicago’s resolutely singular Soldier Field. Then Charlie describes New England quarterback Tom Brady as “the most valuable player in the annals of quarterback this year.” Huh!?! “The annals of quarterback this year!?!?” The phrase is so stilted that, seemingly, it could only be delivered by a speaker unfamiliar with both football and grammatical English.
But perhaps I’m piling on. Even the smoothest of performers spits out a clunker of a sentence now and again. What’s really notable about this interview—and Charlie’s sports coverage in general—is that it’s staged with total disregard for the last 30 years of sports broadcasting. This ostrich-ism, of course, is trademark Charlie; but when it comes to sports, the great man’s head is even more firmly planted in the sand. Sports broadcasting, as we’ve grown accustomed to it in the ESPN era, is awash in scrolling bars, pop-out stats, dozens of camera angles, and the digital-alteration of live feeds. It’s frenetic and adrenaline-producing shit, even during a relatively static talking-heads show like Pardon the Interruption—crack-cocaine to Charlie’s port wine. When Charlie and Nantz use hushed tones to recount the Jets-Patriots playoff game, it sounds like they’re discussing the impact of Hu Jintao’s visit on the dollar–yuan exchange rate. It’s almost a bad satire of sports broadcasting, the analog of a lame freshman poet reciting verse that his audience gradually comes to realize is the lyrics to “Hells Bells.”
So it’s not so much that Charlie doesn’t get sports (although it’s pretty clear he doesn’t much care for football), it’s that he doesn’t give us anything approaching modern sports-talk. Predictably, CR comes alive when the interview shifts from the amped-up world of pro-football to the genteel old-boy pastures of golf, and specifically its most genteel and old-boy stage, the Masters. Pro football is ostensibly the reason Nantz was booked on the show, but CR quickly abandons the subject and spends most of the final twenty minutes singing odes to Augusta National, even though its tournament is more than two months away. (Golf-talk also affords Charlie an opportunity to let us kow he’s buddies with good-old “Freddie” Couples and even gooder-older “Arnie” Palmer.)
There is, in this rather dreary segment, one bright spot—a moment when Charlie flashes a few sparks of wit. When Jim Nantz makes the absurd claim that he and his TV partner Phil Simms are privvy to the inside secrets of both teams’ plans before every NFL game, Charlie calls bullshit. “Is it carefully hidden or is it really obvious?” CR asks Nantz of a team’s game-plan. Nantz demurs, but common sense says Nantz doesn’t really have access to any privileged information. One can imagine Jets coach Rex Ryan telling Nantz that his team is going to emphasize its running attack, but anyone who paid attention to the Jets this season would know that already. There’s no way that Ryan is going to reveal to Nantz his detailed schemes, like that, say, he’s going to use linebacker Bart Scott as a blitz-decoy on every third-down play when the Steelers are in the red zone. That would be incredibly reckless, even for Ryan. Charlie doesn’t know football, but he knows what Important People are willing to tell journalists and what they’re not. Thank god he calls out Nantz, at least this once.