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ESPN took a bold step this fall by introducing political commentary to football. But soon after Rush Limbaugh uttered his first political critique, he was out of a job, and ESPN was knee-deep in controversy. In my view, the network should have been commended for its innovation. It’s about time the world of sport got a taste of political debate. Here’s how my “Sunday NFL Countdown” show would run: Rush: “The media go easy on Donovan McNabb because he’s black and the media want a black quarterback to succeed.” Howard Dean: “I condemn your offensive introduction of race into a discussion of sports! And why aren’t there more black head coaches?” Al Sharpton: “Whitey can’t run. That’s why the African-American man dominates sports.” Arnold Schwarzenegger (reading): “Skinny black man no match for me. I terminate all competitors!” See, that would be a lively program. Honestly, televised sports could use a little more pizazz. Bare-knuckled political analysis might be just the thing. Why merely criticize the coach for bad play calling when his entire worldview could be torn apart? Bud (play-by-play): “Three minutes left, and the Lakers lead by 10. They just need to run down the clock, and they’ll pick up the win.” Red (color): “True. But coach Phil Jackson refuses to play the ball-control game.” Bud: “Is Jackson worried about turnovers?” Red: “No. He’s a committed libertarian who refuses to give directions to his players. He’s the Zen Master. This is anarchy!” Bud: “Frankly, it’s a shame we lost Pat Riley. His Irish Catholic Democrat roots made him comfortable with taking total control of his team.” Red: “That’s why again I call for more of a political centrist as coach. Let’s hope Joe Lieberman turns down the ambassadorship to France and becomes available.” Now that’s insightful commentary, linking a coaching controversy, political philosophy, and international relations. But why stop there? Law professors have free time, lots of complicated ideas, and a powerful urge to pontificate. Chip (play-by-play): “Wow, listen to the crowd! If the Cubs rally again, Wrigley will explode!” Richard Posner (color): “I wonder why they care.” Chip: “What? Why do they care? These Chicagoans are some of the best consumers of baseball in the whole league! They love their Cubs!” Richard: “But what makes you think the fans of the game are the consumers of the game? They’re not. The consumers are the people who buy the items advertised during the telecast. The game and its cheering fans are the products! They’re the lure that brings the shoppers to the advertising. Because the fans are products, we’re justified in imposing any quality controls on them that we want, to ensure that the product comes out right. That’s why the exploding scoreboard messages that constantly instruct the fans to make noise and stomp their feet are so useful. Why leave the quality of the product to chance? We should make sure these fans ‘explode’ whether the Cubs rally or not! In fact, we could more efficiently produce viewers for the advertisers if the games themselves were carefully scripted to maximize dramatic twists and turns. Professional wrestling appears the best analogy here.” Chip: “Anyway, the first pitch is high for ball one.” OK, bad idea. The subtle, overheated mind of the law professor won’t mix well with the blunt athletic world. After all, sports is about competition, which professors abhor. (Once tenured, a law professor’s only real competition is death, and even then a busy dean might not realize there’s an opening for a semester or two.) But the sports fan loves competition. And who better to bring him the complicated message of the law than those practiced denizens of the courtroom, the plaintiffs lawyers. Trip (play-by-play): “It’s gone! Home run, Derek Jeter. The Yankees now lead Tampa by eight runs.” Gerry Spence (color): “This isn’t a contest! The Bronx Bombers’ financial advantage and personnel superiority make this game a mockery of sport! Yet with the typical indifference of the rich, the Yankees have now added insult to injury. Why is Jeter still in the game? I submit to you, Mr. and Mrs. America, that your good judgment will lead you to root against this greedy plundering of the poor by the wealthy! The arrogant Yankees must be stopped, and only you can send that message!” Trip: “Here comes the Devil Rays’ manager, Lou Piniella, out to the mound. I think he’s going to make a change.” Gerry: “To whom, I ask you? To which reliever can the Rays turn now? The cupboard’s bare! The wolf’s at the door! Yet why must Tampa be left to its own meager resources? The Yanks are loaded. Look at all those relievers in their bullpen. Let Piniella take from the Yankees! Bring Mariano Rivera to the mound right now!” Integrating legal argument into the sporting scene would open up entire new subjects for athletic commentary. But, my apologies, I’ve fallen into the characteristic arrogance of the bar: If lawyers can comment on sports, why can’t sports commentators opine on legal practice? Greta Van Susteren: “This is a surprise. The prosecutor has offered the defendant’s secret diary into evidence! If it’s admitted, the jury will learn about the defendant’s sinister plans.” John Madden: “It was like, Pow! The prosecutor brought out the diary and offered it right up, just like that. Bam! That’s how it should be, you know. Just get the evidence and put it in. No dancing around, just straight ahead.” Greta: “Here’s the replay. There was the diary on the prosecutor’s desk.” Joe Theismann: “Watch this. The prosecutor grabs the book off the desk! See? Now he brings it over to the defense team, and they inspect it. Now he brings it over to the judge. See that? Right to the bench, hands it to the bailiff. That’s what I like to see, just do it.” Greta: “Wait. Johnnie Cochran is on his feet! He’s objecting! We’re going to have an argument!” John: “You gotta love the shape Johnnie’s in right now. He took some time off to rest up, and he’s come back stronger than ever.” Joe: “Have you seen Johnnie with his shirt off? Wow.” Will sports and politics begin to merge? People used to complain about the politicization of the law. But look at what it has brought us: unapologetically biased juries, self-important law-making judges, and wild, rancorous confirmation hearings. In other words, trials of the century, Court TV, “Law & Order,” John Grisham, and tons of money to spread around. Politics pays. Now, professional athletes appear to have an unusually strong preference for money. As soon as the jocks realize the profit potential of politics, Rush will fill the anchor chair permanently on “Sunday NFL Countdown” and political sports commentary will be routine. Let’s end the unnecessary discontinuity between Sunday morning political talk shows and Sunday afternoon football talk shows. Rush: “Welcome back. We’ll start our halftime report with Britney Spears on the sideline. (Camera shows Britney Spears for a few moments. Then back to the studio.) Rush: “OK, thank you, Britney. Now let’s watch this highlight from the first half. It’s second and long. Daunte Culpepper looks away from his tight end and throws it to the wide receiver. Did you see that? He refused to throw it to a white man, and instead favored a fellow black with the reception. I’m not saying Culpepper is racist. I’m just saying he’s racially motivated to discriminate against white people.” Ralph Nader: “It’s not about race, big guy. It’s about conflict of interest. The wide receiver has a bonus clause for receptions; the tight end doesn’t. Is Culpepper taking a payoff? Follow the money, Rusheroo!” William F. Buckley: “If your only tool is a hammer, then every problem is a nail, eh, Ralphie? You are correct that this excrescence is about corruption, but not the corruption of a bribe. It’s about the corrosive effect of the immiscible egalitarian jape that plagues this country. The tight end had already received several passes. Culpepper’s misguided sense of justice militated in favor of letting the leporine wideout find the hemocoel of the defense and catch one, too. Culpepper’s bankrupt Weltschmerz not only diminishes the Vikings, but also imperils the crucible of Western democracy itself.” Dan Dierdorf: “Um, before we go back to Britney, I’d just like to say I thought Culpepper made a pretty darn good throw right there.” Jeffrey Standen is a professor of law at Willamette University College of Law in Salem, Ore. He can be reached at [email protected].

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