Starkey: ESPN bottoms out on 'MNF'
It's still hard to believe the horrifically embarrassing performance we witnessed Monday night.
Not from the Steelers, mind you.
The network that recently paid $15.2 billion to extend its NFL deal delivered what might have been the most surreal broadcast in American sports history.
Before we get to the part about the sideline reporter who couldn't speak English, the analyst who couldn't pronounce Roethlisberger and the studio host who mistook a light-bulb malfunction for a national security crisis, we'll throw it to Stuart Scott (Stu).
That is precisely what Chris Berman (Boomer) did at the beginning of "Monday Night Countdown."
"Good evening, Boom," Stu said. "Legendary field, legendary quarterback (analyst) Steve Young. Really, Boom, all we need is you in the corner of the end zone covering the game after Dwight Clark makes The Catch."
Boom would have a legendary night, all right. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Stu quickly went to the sideline reporter who couldn't speak English.
John Sutcliffe — guessing that's his stage name — was making his "Monday Night Football" debut. He normally works for Spanish-speaking ESPN Deportes. Shame on ESPN for throwing him into an impossible situation in perhaps its biggest game of the season.
This was planned. The website sportsgrid.com went to the trouble of confirming as much in a story on Sutcliffe, under the headline, "This Man's Presence on 'Monday Night Football' Confused a Nation."
The story quoted a network spokesman who called the Sutcliffe experiment "the most recent example of ESPN utilizing ESPN Deportes and International commentators on U.S. domestic outlets."
Once again, ESPN leads the way.
You had to feel for Sutcliffe, who came off as a mix of Latka from the old sitcom "Taxi" and Yoda of "Star Wars" fame. His post-halftime report on what Mike Tomlin told him: "We have to take care of better the ball."
But back to the beginning. Stu asked Sutcliffe whether the Steelers would go with injured Ben Roethlisberger or Charlie Batch.
Sutcliffe: "Stu, the answer is Ben Roethlisberger. He came out, he did the pro pre-game ability test, it was fine ... "
Now back to the studio for the fake laughter-filled "C'mon Man" segment, followed by analyst Jon Gruden's first butchering of Ben's surname ("Roth-ulz-berger").
Sutcliffe began his next report: "Stu, you can talk about the Niners, 10-3, NFC champions, but talking to them over the weekend, this is an opportunity to send a message, who they really are."
Berman reminded us of who he really is — a self-absorbed, melodramatic gas bag — when a transformer blew outside Candlestick Park just before kickoff. It had to be a scary moment, but by the time ESPN returned from a break, it was clear that the situation was hardly calamitous.
Just some light bulbs.
Yet, Berman apparently saw an opportunity, as our civic observer @JanePitt tweeted, to "lead America through uncertain times."
"Bringing back eerie memories," Berman said, invoking the 1989 earthquake that shook Candlestick Park before a World Series game.
Boomer was there in '89, you know, and would not let go of the analogy, even though he was quick to point out, "There has not been an earthquake."
Nope. Just some light bulbs. Yet Berman and play-by-play man Mike Tirico proceeded as if the free world were in peril.
Berman: "Mike Tirico and the guys are getting set to call the game, scrambling to a telephone. Michael, you guys all right?"
Wait, Tirico had to "scramble" to get to a phone• And he might have been injured?
Was this a scene from "Armageddon"?
Tirico, striking a cool professional tone amid the crisis: "Chris, we heard, or felt, no shaking ... "
Berman: "Well, I mean, that at least is the good news, Michael, on the non-shaking."
This went on for a bit. Finally, Boomer said, "Can you tell the mood of the fans• Panic wouldn't be the right word, but do you feel they're settled in calmly enough, Michael?"
You half-expected Boomer to ask if tents had been set up for possible victims.
Tirico said nobody was panicking. That probably should have sufficed, but Boomer went on. He again hearkened to 1989 and proceeded to confuse us in a way Sutcliffe could only dream of.
What follows is an actual transcript of Boomer's monologue:
"I will say this — and I don't want to get anybody crazy — because we were in the upper deck at the World Series like so many of the other folks in the disaster; the earthquake in San Francisco, during the World Series. And I will say ... the image that I will have on those running the stadium and those very quickly scrambling to positions of authority, if you will, and getting to where they can, without power, San Francisco has this down. They're really good at it, OK?"
Finally ready for some football, ESPN opened with a shot of Roethlisberger kneeling in prayer.
Tirico (honestly) said, "He's not Tebowing, he's Ben-ing."
Early in the second quarter, Tirico asked Sutcliffe what he'd learned of the outage.
"Some man told me he remembers the earthquake of '89, the last time the power was lost in this stadium. But to be honest, you can tell that they're running like hell trying to fix it."
"Good hustle John," Tirico said. "Thank you."
No, no, thank you ESPN, for putting those 15 billion dollars to good use.
And for keeping us calm during a time of great national angst.