August 18, 2014

Color commentary.

One of the great things about going to high school with people from 60 different countries was that we were all forced to see things, even the small, everyday things we all took for granted, from different perspectives.

I met Andrew on my first day at the school — the next year, we would become roommates — and we immediately bonded over our fandom of delicious food, British comedy, and American sports.

Andrew was from England, and so his experience with American sports was considerably different than mine; while I grew up looking at baseball players and football players like heroes and gods, he saw the same sports as entertainment and diversions. Most of all, I was used to watching games with the inane banter that is characteristic of most American sports commentary: uninspired play-by-play, ridiculous statistics, and forced dialog between broadcasters whose job was to keep the audience occupied, rather than entertain or educate them.

(There are, of course, instances where American sports commentary is entertaining instead of inane, but this is the exception, these days. I could listen to Vin Scully or Ernie Harwell call baseball games all my life, but they are a rarity. There is a lack of poetry in our sports commentary; voices like Harwell’s and Scully’s are a welcome relief from the doldrums.)

A few months into our first year of school together, Andrew and I developed a game we played whenever we watched sports in the small lecture hall that also had a cable television connection. We would put the game on mute, and would instead run our own play-by-play — ours was an over-the-top parody that mocked the sad state of commentary while also providing comic relief to whomever was in the lecture hall with us, watching the game unfold.

We developed characters with rich personas: they had names, backstories. Andrew was JVIII, the play-by-play announcer, a journalism-school-graduate that had never played sports at a high level and relied heavily on statistics and tropes that they taught him in school. He was unbaiased (often, comically so), and did the heavy lifting in our parody. Color commentary was left to me, KA-J, the former professional athlete with a mediocre-at-best career elevated to professional broadcaster after an injury forced me to retire early. I spoke in clichés, was always angling for a coaching job, and could always be counted on to put my foot in my mouth at least once a game.

These characters, this parody, was entertaining to us, and sometimes, to those who joined us during our spectatorship. Occasionally, we would corral one of our fellow classmates/sports fans into being a guest commentator: we were occasionally joined by the former coach, or the analytics expert, or the sideline reporter.

By our second year, we had amassed a small, but enthusiastic crew for our occasional sports-watching. Our commentary characters would sometimes appear outside of the lecture hall — any snarky comments about things we observed on campus would be said in our personas — and we were even invited, once in a while, to provide commentary to some of the pickup basketball games and soccer matches that would take place on weekends. What started as a parody of bad sportscasting turned into our way of giving some play-by-play to life; we had developed our very own Statler and Waldorf alter-egos, with much less grumpiness.

These days, once in a while, I’ll still listen to sports on mute (mostly when I am watching in bed and L is beside me and I don’t want to wake her up) and have my own running commentary running through my head. It isn’t better than what would regularly come through the speakers — in fact, it is often deliberately worse — but it does for me what so much sports commentary fails to do: it entertains.

And sometimes I hear the voice of JVIII in my head, providing play-by-play to my color commentary, making me laugh.