MIAMI -- It was like someone sat on a whoopie cushion during the sermon at church.
Before the Heat-Knicks game last week, TNT interviewed crazy Tracy Morgan. He made a fairly benign joke fantasizing about Sarah Palin, although benign can be subjective depending on your perspective/politics, and benign rarely has been less benign than it is in today's allergic-to-everything arena. TNT immediately apologized, evidently surprised while interviewing a crude comedian that he would be a crude comedian.
America has asked sports to help raise its kids for a long time, demanding that athletes be role models, even though Charles Barkley, who has cursed on TNT's studio show, famously asked us to stop doing that in his commercials. Morgan's joke would have been harmless on late-night TV, where TNT employs a Conan O'Brien whose fame came with the aid of a masturbating bear. But it was inappropriate with a father-son sports audience that wasn't expecting it, so perhaps someone in that audience can get the kids to look up from their violent video games, hip-hop, Internet smut and South Park long enough to explain this:
Why do so many of us treat sports like a church instead of a carnival? And why is behavior that is acceptable elsewhere in entertainment blasphemous in this too-serious cathedral?
It is so strange. Sports should have more laughter, not less. Fewer rules, not more. Like comedy clubs, it should be a stage with less of the political correctness that shackles the rest of America. It shouldn't be a place where coaches ban their players from using Twitter.
Athletes/performers are jesters, not high priests, and what surrounds them should feel more like the circus than a lecture. Ochocinco's behavior should be judged with the latitude we give rock stars, not politicians. But, everywhere you look, there is someone out there trying to scrub the fun out of what are supposed to be fun and games.
If it isn't college football changing a bowl game's result by penalizing a player who celebrated a touchdown with a military salute to the crowd, it is NFL commissioner Roger Goodell saying he is going to crack down on trash talking. If it isn't Bill Belichick making Wes Welker sit out the first series of a playoff game for a clever news conference, it is the Olympic committee making Canada's female hockey team apologize for celebrating on ice with beer and cigars. We've gotten to the point in football that after DeSean Jackson enjoys himself too much while scoring and gets fined $10,000, the ref should just turn on his microphone and announce, "Penalty. Young black man not behaving enough like an old white man. Fifteen yards."
The whole thing feels as ridiculous as the time NBA referee Steve Javie ejected Washington's mascot Hoops from a game.
Here's the problem: No one can agree on where the line should be, not even inside the church.
Take one seismic celebration from baseball. Milwaukee's Prince Fielder hit a walk-off home run against the Giants, and all his gyrating teammates gathered at home plate. On his last step, the tubby slugger jumped and landed with force as all the Brewers fell to the ground like bowling pins from the earth's quiver. It was funny and original and unprecedented in the church of baseball. Next time they saw him, the Giants hit Fielder with a baseball on purpose.
Same team, same sport: Center fielder Mike Cameron's father used to untuck his shirt at home to signify the end of a very hard work day. So his son would do the same to honor him immediately after victorious games while running in from the outfield.
The Brewers, as a sign of unity, joined in. St. Louis manager Tony La Russa called this disrespectful.
You hear that a lot in sports--respect the game. You hear it so much that it is accepted instead of mocked. Respect a game ? Imagine your opponent accusing you of disrespect because you played Monopoly or PlayStation with an untucked shirt.
There are, per usual, generational and cultural differences here--the Brewers have more black starters than most major-league teams--but that's a column for a different day. It does bare noting, though, that young people seem to value fun and theatrics more than the nebulous respect for games preferred by the authorities, which is part of why pro wrestling and mixed-martial arts are so popular with the 18-34 demographic.
There's always tension when old people and their sensibilities make rules for the young, but sometimes pro wrestling still creeps into the cathedral through the back door.
The New York Jets were fun and interesting and loud and, after they beat the Patriots, linebacker Bart Scott taunted the New England mascot, weaved all over the field with arms spread like a jet's wings and landed on one knee next to the ESPN reporter before launching into a rant that could have been viewed as either comical or boorish, depending on your perspective. It is not coincidence that so many players in the league say they want to play for the Jets.
The media, run by older people reading from scripture in the cathedral's Teleprompter, doesn't help much. You heard Joe Buck, who is genuinely funny, react with disgust when Randy Moss pretended to moon the Green Bay crowd after a touchdown. Beyond that, though, you don't get a lot of humor in coverage other than the forced jocularity and fake laughter on pregame shows.
Not enough executives see that Barkley's TNT studio show has been the best for a long time because it doesn't take itself or much of anything seriously. The most popular sports columnist in America? ESPN's Bill Simmons, a former writer for Jimmy Kimmel. People will gravitate toward laughter if you aren't too busy apologizing for it or taking yourself too seriously to partake in it.
The other day, in a very serious segment on the NFL Network analyzing the very serious game, Joe Theismann accidentally called Patriots running Danny Woodhead "Woodcock." This dissolved into silly, sophomoric, spasming and contagious laughter for minutes, Deion Sanders literally falling out of his chair and onto the floor while the other analysts howled and cried.
Fun had interrupted the seriousness in the back pews of the church. And Steve Mariucci kept asking why they had to stop taping.
It is a good question, and it should echo into the rest of the sports arena.