Television, by and large, has done wonderful things for sports fans. It gives us instant replay and telestrators and five angles on a single play. It telecasts the Olympics over a variety of networks, so we can see more than one sport, and not just in prime time. It reveals the intricacies of the sports we love in myriad ways.
Of course, it can also reveal some unpleasant truths. Shows such as HBO’s “Hard Knocks” sometimes put us a little too up close and personal with players and coaches. In HBO’s “24/7” documentary about the Capitals and Penguins, some fans were surprised to find that lovable Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau can be quite profane behind the scenes — and that the Penguins’ Matt Cooke seemed kind and gentle off the ice, if not on.
For some, an all-access pass into every facet of their favorite sport is a rush. The hunger for NFL news seems insatiable, and the players feed it via Twitter and other social media sites.
But the move to make sports more “real” to fans has moved them closer to reality television, the genre that already has broken down divisions between viewers and drug abuse (“Intervention”), mental illness (“Hoarders”) and dreadful brides (pick a show, any show).
Although I think this ship has sailed, I still like my sports a little less “real.”
Let’s take Brian Kelly’s behavior last weekend as an example. The Notre Dame coach literally turned puce with rage while dropping a variety of curse words, including the dreaded f-bombs, on his players.
The Irish didn’t look good in their 23-20 loss to South Florida, but Kelly looked worse — and his cursing came on network TV, not cable, where at least viewers are aware that exposure to such content is possible. I certainly didn’t expect such outbursts on NBC on a Saturday afternoon.
You didn’t have to have an advanced lip-reading degree to tell what he was saying. And you didn’t have to look hard to see him. The cameras were right in his face for every tirade. It was must-see TV at a whole new level. The irony is, of course, that those cameras were there to make money for the school that Kelly represents, whose players he was berating.
Notre Dame is in the midst of another of its exclusive, lucrative broadcast-rights deals with NBC. In 2008, despite declining ratings for the Irish, NBC signed an extension with Notre Dame through 2015 that is reportedly worth $15 million a season (Kelly’s salary is about a fifth of that, roughly $3 million a year). The addition of an eighth game each season, to be played away from South Bend — hence the visit to FedEx Field in November to play Maryland — made the deal even more valuable.
As a comparison, ACC teams earn $12-$13 million from TV revenues. The Southeastern Conference’s television deal earns its teams about $19 million a season. Then again, many of the SEC teams are much better than the Irish have been in recent years. In the past 18 years, Notre Dame has finished in the final top 10 rankings just twice.
The Irish were ridiculously ranked No. 16 entering Saturday’s game against South Florida, and their performance against the Bulls might have made a whole sideline of saints want to scream. Kelly is no saint, nor should he be expected to be one.
But a college football coach is the face of his program, whether all of his games are nationally televised or not. The coach’s behavior should surpass that of his players. A Notre Dame player who used those same vulgarities on camera would certainly have faced consequences for his actions. Why didn’t Kelly?
Maybe he did. At his weekly news conference, when asked about his behavior on the sideline, he first responded: “Did I hit somebody? Did I strike somebody? Is that what you’re referring to? I’m asking specifically what you’re referring to.”
I’m guessing that’s not the standard Notre Dame is seeking to achieve — refraining from striking a player. Anyway, after the question was clarified, Kelly gave a more telling response.
“I was extremely frustrated with the game,” he said. “What I have to recognize is that I’m on TV all the time. [I need to] do a better job of understanding when that camera is on me. It seems like it’s on more than I’m used to. So I’ll have to do a better job of controlling my emotions.”
That’s probably what Notre Dame officials wanted to hear — that Kelly understands he’s on camera and that he needs to control his emotions. Then again, the game drew a 2.4 rating despite the weather delay, up slightly from Notre Dame’s 2010 opener. Apparently Kelly’s meltdown didn’t hurt the bottom line. And isn’t that what it’s all about?