Three-part 'Idols of the Game' right mix of praise, skepticism

Media Watch

November 27, 1995|By Milton Kent

When actor Dabney Coleman emerges in the opening of the three-part, six-hour TBS documentary "Idols of the Game" tonight (8:05 p.m.) dressed in turn-of-the-century sportswriter garb and introduces himself as "The Scribe," the natural inclination is to groan in anticipation of what surely will follow.

Surely, we pray, the folks at Turner won't try some meandering, misty-eyed Ken Burns-like dirge that reduces the participants to cartoon-like figures by lionizing them beyond recognition, will they? The answer is a resounding and joyful no, as "Idols" smartly blends myth and reality into a satisfying mix that praises all that is good about sports, while casting a skeptical eye on its excesses.

In choosing the "Idols," writer Robert Lipsyte, a New York Times columnist, and the production team -- with help from athletes, historians and broadcasters -- are as interested in making points about the society and its attitudes about sports as about the sports themselves.

The presence of some of the "Idols," like Mary Lou Retton and Charles Barkley, to name two, certainly will provoke a lively discussion, but good documentaries should do that, and "Idols" is a terrific piece of work.

Part I, titled "Inventing the All-American," takes a look at some of the larger-than-life figures of the 20th century, including Jim Thorpe, Babe Ruth, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Arnold Palmer and Muhammad Ali, casting them in heroic terms.

But in an interesting turn, "Idols" also examines the myth-making machinery behind some of these figures, chastising, for instance, the sportswriters of his day for failing to report Ruth's carousing and drinking, while noting that part of Palmer's attractiveness as a hero was that his sport, golf, provided suburban America a comfortable haven away from the racial strife of the day.

In part II, "Babes in Boyland," airing tomorrow at 8:05 p.m., the growing influence of women in the sports culture, from Babe Didrikson through Billie Jean King and Nancy Lieberman-Cline, is examined smartly against the continued sexism they meet.

In the most provocative episode, Thursday's concluding part III, called "Love and Money," "Idols" takes a tough look at the giant marketing vehicle sports has become, through such figures as Retton, Barkley, Michael Jordan and former ABC Sports chief Roone Arledge and through television itself, "the new altar where hero worship may become more important than the idols themselves."

In the most controversial portion of the documentary, part III takes a swipe at Notre Dame football and coaches Knute Rockne, who stood for values and honesty while playing players who were secretly paid for their efforts, and current Irish leader Lou Holtz, who is accused of keeping "the hype alive with that old Rockne mix of sports and moral values."

And though the device of presenting Coleman as a been-there, done-that sportswriter is a bit too cloying, Coleman, who received an Emmy nomination for his "Slap Maxwell" sportswriter role a few years ago, brings just the right sense of wonder and disaffection to the project. The series will be repeated in one take Saturday at 12:05 p.m., and would be a worthwhile addition to a tape library.

Postcards from the sidelines

Normally, football sideline reporters serve about the same purpose that that wad of cotton inside a bottle of aspirin does, which is to say that it takes up valuable space that could be better used by more of the actual product. But ABC's Lynn Swann did quite nicely this weekend, with solid interviews, particularly Thursday's query of recently fired Georgia coach Ray Goff and Saturday's chat with Dallas running back Emmitt Smith, and good information.

By the way, while NBC was being so self-serving yesterday by noting the presence of its Baltimore affiliate on the sidelines in Cleveland, it would have been nice if the network had identified Mark Viviano, the reporter who just happened to break the story of the Browns' move to Baltimore.

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