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Pardon the Quite Frankly

America's sports columnists are mutating into shouting-head pundits--and it's ESPN's fault.

11:00 PM, Nov 10, 2005 • By SONNY BUNCH
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SIMERS FEARS that yodelers like Smith and Skip Bayless (a pundit on ESPN.com and ESPN 2's morning show Cold Pizza) are not only ushering in a new ethic to sports columns, but are affecting veteran columnists, too. When asked about ESPN's two best sports pundit shows, The Sports Reporters and Pardon the Interruption, Simers notes that "if you're a careful watcher, those shows have changed over a period of time. They're becoming screamers too."

The problem with sports columnists appearing on TV and radio is that, like the rest of us, they only have so much time in the day. "I don't think there's any question that if you're spread thin, you're not going to put out a good column," Simers says. When Stephen Rodrick noted that "sports television turns [pundits'] columns into shrill, non-reported versions of their televised rants" in Slate earlier this year, Tony Kornheiser (who, in addition to his responsibilities as a Washington Post columnist, hosts a morning radio show and co-hosts Pardon the Interruption in the afternoon) had a conniption fit, calling on the Post (which had recently purchased Slate) to fire the writer.

To most in the know, however, there is little doubt that Kornheiser's column is suffering. And even worse, it appears as though the Washington Post doesn't care. "Apparently [Kornheiser] doesn't care about the column any more, and the newspaper is willing to live with it because they get so much national exposure," says one veteran Washington, D.C. sports correspondent who asked to remain anonymous. "People across the country know that Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon write for the Washington Post, so [the paper] doesn't really care if the two of them just mail it in." When asked in an online chat last month why "It seems like the really high profile guys (Kornheiser/Wilbon) spout off without examining the facts of the situation," the Post's soccer writer Steven Goff retorted that "Some of our columnists are busy with their TV shows."

In his foreword to 2004's edition of The Best American Sports Writing, Stout fears that the gravitation towards television and radio appearances "is a crude admission that writing, well, just isn't that important, and it often shows in their print work." What happens is an inevitable decline in quality: "The result is writing that aspires to have the same effect, writing informed not by language or literature but by shtick, by not-so-comic or clever monologues that attempt to shock, provoke or otherwise exhibit 'edginess.'"

Thanks, ESPN.

Sonny Bunch is an assistant editor at the Weekly Standard.