Legal games don't make good TV

BY foxsports • April 18, 2011

In the professional sports system, the fans are reliant on two separate yet equally important groups: The players, who earn staggering salaries (if only for a relatively short time), and the owners, who make obscene amounts of money. These are their stories.

Ka-chung! Welcome to “Law & Order: Major Sports Unit.”

Lately, it seems many of the major developments surrounding sports are playing out in a courtroom, not on the field or in an arena. And while newspapers are well-equipped to follow the complexity of such matters, TV — more comfortable with highlights and second-guessing coaching decisions — normally isn’t.

Lawyers can be useful under the right circumstances, but delivering “Plays of the Day” (or more accurately, “arguments of the day”) isn’t one of them.

For several weeks, the NFL’s future has sat in the hands of a judge, with all parties waiting for a ruling that would set guidelines for the labor battle playing out between owners and players. Except that as often happens with the courts (in reality, if not on television), the judge didn’t issue a decision, resulting in several more weeks of uncertainty and negotiating limbo.

Meanwhile, former San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds’ trial for lying to a grand jury resulted in a guilty verdict on a single count, and actually delivered an assortment of courtroom twists worthy of primetime. They included, but were not limited to, a former mistress testifying about the former slugger’s physical and sexual attributes, a damning audiotape produced at the last minute by prosecutors, and a prosecution witness who wound up doing considerable damage to the government’s case.

The Bonds case rather awkwardly overlapped with the start of the MLB season. And with roughly 146 games left per team before the playoffs, it’s hard to argue that anything transpiring on the field right now is equally compelling.

The day the Bonds verdict came down illustrated the pickle in which sports outlets find themselves. That night, “SportsCenter” featured not just Bonds’ conviction, but Kobe Bryant drawing criticism for shouting a gay slur from the bench, the prospect of an NFL lockout, and concerns about Dodgers Stadium security after a Giants fan was beaten so badly at a game he wound up in a coma.

Based on a sampling of email, a lot of fans still get uncomfortable — or downright irritated — when the subject deviates from the hardwood courts to the legal ones, wishing “SportsCenter” could focus exclusively on how the Yankees are swinging their bats, not whether some judge has swung her gavel. Ideally, sports represent an escape from reality, not another cold splash of it.

Frankly, though, such folks need to grow up. Major sports (including college football and hoops) are a massive business, and the big money — and how it’s divvied up — has become an unavoidable aspect of the game, in much the way the movie and TV industries haven’t been able to escape labor unrest in recent years.

While it might be lovely to get away from all this peripheral news, these are billion-dollar assets and star players have become international celebrities. Besides, there’s a reason TV networks put on almost as many legal shows as police procedurals. The bottom line is they’re tailor-made for drama.

As New York Times columnist George Vecsey noted regarding Bonds, “This was a conviction of the career home run leader for obstruction of justice. Major League Baseball will have to deal with it.” And so will its fans, asterisk or no asterisk.

What could once be dismissed as off-the-court distractions have simply become too prevalent to ignore, and there are too many enterprises — from Deadspin, which doggedly dug up dirt on Brett Favre; to TMZ, which called attention to Bryant’s sideline outburst — with a vested interest in exposing athletes’ bad and ugly sides.

So if you’re the kind of fan determined to root for somebody who won’t wind up in the wrong kind of court, the current options are either suck it up or try cheering for a nurse or teacher — anybody who works for a lot less money and without the benefit of an audience.

Email: Twitter: blowryontv.

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