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Boo-yah! This is Sports Center!

If they didn't work there, many of the SportsCenter anchors and production assistants would be as glued to their sets
Marc Wortman
From the Print Edition:
Gen. Tommy Franks, Nov/Dec 03

(continued from page 2)

With their devotion to accuracy and fun, the anchors and reporters won the respect of the sports world. SportsCenter eventually became the voice of record for sports. When ESPN signed on to broadcast Sunday NFL football games in 1987, Berman remembers thinking, "My God, we're here to stay."

Today, SportsCenter is part of a multimedia empire, and ESPN is a 3,500-employee subsidiary of Disney that includes six separate domestic networks, 25 international networks, a 700-station syndicate radio network, a national magazine and even a chain of sports-themed ESPN Zone restaurants. And sports legends and current stars such as Curt Shilling, Evander Holyfield and Gordie Howe regularly make the pilgrimage to Bristol, either to work as analysts or to appear in SportsCenter promos.

"Who would guess that celebrity sighting would become a sport in Bristol?" says Walsh. "After all," as The New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden wrote in 2002, "'everyone wants to have a cameo on SportsCenter.'"

The hundreds of award-winning promos, with their college mascots engaged in running battles through the ESPN halls, anchors chipping golf balls into radar dishes, Lance Armstrong generating the network's electricity on his bike, and more, create their own kind of buzz and have become as much a part of American sports culture as Super Bowl Sunday, horse racing's Triple Crown and the Curse of the Bambino.

The atmosphere they project, "We're big-time and small-time," as Berman puts it, reflects the clubby and frenzied character of the SportsCenter newsroom, where the lights never go out. Longtime late-night anchor Linda Cohn describes it as like "a college dorm floor. We're all in it together. We have a lot in common with each other. We just don't have to fight for the shower."

Cohn is one of a several women who have helped ESPN pioneer the increasingly accepted place of women on the playing field and in the broadcast booth, even for men's sports. "My best compliment," she says, "is the fact they watch me and don't think: guy, gal. Of course," she says and laughs, "when a kid at a University of Tulsa basketball game wrote 'Linda Cohn is hot' on his chest, SportsCenter had to put it on the air. I said, 'Wow, I'm impressed he spelled the name right.'"

That sort of lightheartedness and breezy quick response is par for the course for SportsCenter. "We take our sports seriously," says Van Pelt, "but we don't take ourselves seriously."

Former anchor Rich Eisen, who regularly paired with Stuart Scott for the 11 p.m. show, said, "We're encouraged to have fun. There needs to be a lot of freedom. That's the beauty of the show. Freedom of expression has to be fostered, not regimented." Sitting in his small office packed with sports and SportsCenter memorabilia, he gestures to a framed Mad magazine comic that made fun of SportsCenter and says, "That's the pinnacle. I used to read that in summer camp." Unlike Mad, he says, "we walk a fine line all the time. There're always arguments over what's over the line. You want to add comment in a way that's not being partial. You can speak your spots when there's bald-faced silliness going on. That's why people watch us. We watch sports from a journalistic point of view and with an arched eyebrow."

Sports news is not always just what happens on the field. Many athletes keep making headlines after the game ends. "We have to make judgments all the time," says executive editor Walsh. "It's no different than reporting on politics to a certain degree. We have a unique mixture, covering ephedra [the weight-loss supplement that may have played a role in the death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler during spring training], or Mario's shot or Bonds's home run. SportsCenter is serious when it has to be and a relief from war news, so you have a place to go not to be inundated with those kinds of stories."

By mid-afternoon, what started off as a nonnews day at SportsCenter has made a complete U-turn. "We have more news than we can do," says producer Bernstein. "We're starting the whole show from scratch." During a long and testy on-camera interview with veteran basketball announcer Dick Vitale that afternoon, Georgia coach Herrick denied the charges by Cole (some of which were later substantiated, leading to the coach's resignation). On top of that, the St. Bonaventure University men's basketball team announced it would not play the rest of its season after a player was found to be academically ineligible, forcing the school to forfeit numerous games. And then, former Florida State University quarterback Adrian McPherson was charged with betting on college and professional games, including Florida State games he played in. The news about Wells' comments about his book has been pushed far down in the show's lineup.


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