Sidelines

One small blessing of the Super Bowl is that there’s a halftime show. Yes, it’ll all be lip-synched, Auto-tuned, and laser-lighted so thoroughly that we’ll feel pummeled throughout it. No, there won’t be anything as WTF-daring or riveting as “Nipplegate”—God, has it already been over a decade?—ever again. But the setup and coordination of a multimillion-dollar halftime show does mean that everyone’s gotta get off the sidelines as soon as the second quarter ends. And that, my friends, means no sideline interviews. Thank God.

Sideline interviews are, easily, the most pointless exercises in TV sports broadcasting. There’s no better source of cliché, banality, or information-free talk than a college football coach at halftime, blinking and stuttering in the glare of the arena lights, exhausted and sweaty players bumping into him, his eyes wary and on the lookout for a defensive coordinator who needs a good chewing-out, and here’s Perky Blonde Model #471-A in his face, with a rigid microphone in hand: “So, coach, how happy are you with the ways your boys have played so far?”

If said coach’s team is behind, “Well, our boys have got to get on the stick and make some stops, you know? Keep turnovers down, and make some stops, you know, and we’ll be okay in the second half.”

If said coach’s team is ahead, “Well, our boys can’t rest on our feet now. The other team can come back on you strong, so we gotta stay focused in the second half, play all four quarters, you know.”

Perky Blonde Model #471-A doesn’t want, nor does her ESPN TV affiliate give her time for, detailed analysis. Besides, it’s not like either the coach or the interviewer can hear themselves anyway, underneath the roar of 60,000 jacked-up college kids and a sound system that could blow out the Hoover Dam. There’s no space for the coach to offer more than a soundbite. Even if he could, he probably wouldn’t want to give away any strategies or adjustments to monitors and videotapes, anyway, not when it could be transmitted to the competition within seconds, or used against him during contract negotiations in the off-season.

On the basketball sidelines, it’s the same thing: “Coach, what’s your takeaway from the first half?”

“We gotta, you know, make better shots. Stop giving up easy buckets. Step up our D.”

Etc.

During gameplay, of course, when strategies are being adjusted in real-time, when it might be useful to know what a coach is thinking as play is actually evolving on the court or on the field, when the pressure of the game might actually lead to a comment that’s detailed or at least not stage-managed and massaged for the highlights reel, well, the coach is too damn busy. Periodically, we get Perky Blonde Model #471-A, or Announcer Flunkie Model #9031, giving a tepid summary of what some poor, overworked assistant coach just told her or him about the quarterback’s season-ending concussion.

None of this tells us anything that we don’t know just from watching the game, or from listening to the (better-informed, better-analyzing) play-by-play and color commentators. We know this.

So what is the point of sideline interviews? Is it just to kill airtime that can’t be filled by a Doritos commercial? The chatter I’d like to hear would come from the huddles, from hidden mikes on the benches, or swiped transmissions from coaches to assistants. Every now and then, TV broadcasting pretends it’s giving us that authenticity. You know, the “Helmet Cam.” Or 15 seconds of live mike from a frustrated point guard riding the bench. But we know it’s false because no one is ever caught saying anything libelous or otherwise actionable. There’s no chance the FCC will swoop in with a hefty fine because of anything caught on the Helmet Cam, and we know—from our own trash talk in backyard play or memories of Little League or just cursing in vain at a bad call by the ref—that these snippets are as false, airless, and useless as sideline interviews. They’re worse, in fact, because the audiovisual quality is cruddier than your grandma’s YouTube video.

Most sports aren’t much for chatter, anyway. The crowd goes silent during a tennis volley, only erupting into cheers once game play is at a rest. There’s an audible hush in the audience as a golfer winds up his swing. Football, basketball, hockey, and soccer are better for yelling and chants. Baseball’s long buildups to brief spurts of action and its interminable lulls (I’m not complaining, just stating a fact) makes it the rare sport that lends itself to actual in-game conversation. Even there, though, the dugout interviews are rarely more interested or informative than any other sport.

The lone exception seems to be boxing. Because most boxing is pay-per-view or on HBO, neither athletes nor trainers have to watch their language. In fact, witnessing elaborate trash talk is one of the sport’s key pleasures offered to us by TV. One of my favorite TV sideline moments occurred sometime in the mid-1980s, when watching a Mike Tyson match with my dad and his crew of buddies who had bought into the PPV match. After the match, which Tyson won, an announcer asked Tyson how difficult his opponent was. Tyson said, “Man, he hit like a fuckin’ mule kick.” Knowing that even Mike Tyson hurt and faced fear and was vulnerable—and had a baby’s voice, which I had never heard before—was something that I learned about him, from a sideline interview.

But the Super Bowl ain’t boxing, no matter how violent it gets. The spectacle is pre-programmed to within inches of its life, every second marketed and paid for by corporations large and small. At least the game acknowledges this, refusing to pander to a pretense of authenticity. The regular season could stand to learn from this.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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