Boxing story doesn't rate with NBC LTC

July 25, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

ATLANTA -- Stories, NBC wants to tell stories. Help the viewers identify with the athletes. Give them a rooting interest, especially when the performers are from the good old U S of A.

NBC is so hot to tell stories, it will tape perhaps one of the most dramatic events in Olympic history, then present the Kerri Strug saga as if it were live, right down to the schmaltzy ending.

We are here to tell another story.

Man gets arrested. Man tells police he's a crack cocaine addict. Man enters a six-month rehabilitation program, then becomes a leading gold-medal candidate for the U.S. boxing team.

True story. It belongs to Antonio Tarver, a light heavyweight from Orlando, Fla. But unless you watch late-night television, you're not going to see it on NBC.

You see, there are stories, and there are stories. Tarver's is every bit as compelling as Strug's -- more compelling, in fact, because Strug was just another gymnast before Tuesday night. But he is a boxer, and viewers don't like boxing.

End of story.

At least according to NBC.

Now, perhaps it's true that the network would lose 75 percent of its audience if it showed boxing in prime time, as NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol suggested.

Certainly, it's true that NBC paid $456 million for the rights to the Olympics, and would be irresponsible if it didn't try to maximize that investment.

NBC can't tell all the stories, not when there are so many athletes, and so many minor sports. But boxing wasn't a minor sport until NBC declared it minor. Boxing traditionally has provided some of the best moments in the Games.

So, what's the story?

Oh, it's pretty simple.

Most of the U.S. boxers are from the inner city. Several have unsavory backgrounds. And the sport in which they compete is violent, often brutal and at times maddeningly corrupt.

As a group, boxers are not the type that will appeal to NBC's target female audience. In short, they are not all cute and packaged and -- let's just come right out with it -- lily-white like Kerri Strug.

What about Dominique Dawes, the first African-American gymnast to win a gold medal? She's not from the same world as Antonio Tarver. She's from the middle-class gymnastics world, and therefore is acceptable.

The Dream Team basketball players? They're walking commercials. They're acceptable.

It's all about ratings, and appealing to advertisers, and propagating myths. It's not about telling stories, unless the stories fit neatly into the package.

Right now, the U.S. boxers are a story. They're 8-1 after Tarver's decision over Russia's Dmitri Vybornov yesterday, and three more U.S. bouts are scheduled at the Alexander Memorial Coliseum today.

Tarver, 27, won on points, 5-2. It was an awful fight, it didn't deserve to be anywhere near prime time, even U.S. coach Al Mitchell said Tarver was "lousy." But that's not the point.

"Hey, the professionals are stealing the show from the amateurs," Tarver said. "We'd love to be on prime time. It's ironic that they had Evander Holyfield and Muhammad Ali in the opening ceremonies, but basically shut us out."

Ali won a gold medal in 1960, Holyfield a bronze in 1984. Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya also were Olympic medalists. This is where the great ones start.

Who will ever forget Foreman walking around the ring with a tiny American flag after winning the gold in 1968? The emergence of the Spinks brothers in 1976? The controversial loss by Roy Jones Jr. in 1988?

NBC said it would reconsider adding boxing to prime time after the opening ceremonies -- mighty big of the network, considering that last night it showed equestrian.

"They keep winning, we'll be there," Mitchell said. "I just don't understand it. If NBC doesn't want it, why can't they give it to CBS?"

Uh, Al, that's not the way it works.

"I'm a coach," Mitchell said, shrugging.

A coach who would love to tell you all about super heavyweight Lawrence Clay-Bey, 30, a prison guard who started boxing only four years ago to lose weight and is now captain of the U.S. team.

Then again, this is boxing.

Not every story is pretty.

Bey once was accused of sexual assault. Heavyweight Nate James served 20 months for armed robbery. Light middleweight David Reid was accused of assaulting his girlfriend. And the father of featherweight Floyd Mayweather is in jail for possession of crack cocaine.

Those are stories, too -- stories with their own morals. But why interrupt this nightly soap opera? Kerri Strug vaulted with a sprained ankle, and all America cheered. Antonio Tarver beat crack cocaine, and no one cares.

That's NBC's story.

Pub Date: 7/25/96

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