The Listening Beneath The Shouting At PTI

by Kevin Burton

  On good days it’s a belly laugh with two old friends. On bad days it’s almost medicinal.

   It’s called Pardon the Interruption, or PTI to its many fans. It’s on ESPN. I think it’s the best sports television product ever.  

   I used to say it was named ironically, because I didn’t pardon any interruption. Anyone who knew me well, knew not call during PTI.  These days though I get the show via podcast. So I don’t have to watch at any certain time. 

   Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon are former Washington Post sports reporters who in 2001 brought their ongoing newsroom debates to television.  They love sports and they love each other. As a viewer you can’t miss that.

   The depth of their life experiences, knowledge of sports and insight into the human condition bring heft to the show. Their humor and their love make it the best ever.

   I stumbled upon PTI by tuning in for ESPN SportsCenter a few minutes early. I immediately liked the rhythm and personality of the show. Before long I was making sure to tune in for the beginning of PTI at 5:30 Eastern.

   Soon I figured out I didn’t need to watch SportsCenter for 60 or 90 minutes. In 30 minutes, Mike and Tony would touch on everything I needed to know. If they didn’t make time for it, it probably didn’t matter that much.

   The exception to that would be news on my favorite underdog college teams, The Dayton Flyers and Wichita State Shockers.

   I must not have been the only one watching PTI and skipping SportsCenter because ESPN soon came up with a format where the final segment of PTI was embedded within SportsCenter. 

   PTI has spawned dozens of imitator shows across all networks. Bruce Buschel on the-cauldron.com called PTI, “The best news show on television.”

   PTI is the happy marriage of two previous shows. ”The Sportswriters” was a Chicago-based show with a much slower pace that aired in the 1980s. Four sportswriters would talk about the larger issues. I don’t remember there being any graphics. I don’t remember any music, just the sound of a manual typewriter.

   The room was always filled with cigar smoke. If you ever saw that show that’s the one thing you can never forget. 

   The other model for PTI is “At The Movies,” a show on PBS where movie critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert would talk about recent movies and what they liked or didn’t like about them.  For Siskel and Ebert it was thumbs up or thumbs down.

   You had two guys talking with some passion, sometimes disagreeing, just as you see on PTI, but on PTI, the decibel level is twice as high.

   The shouting on PTI is as ever present as the cigar smoke on The Sportswriters. But there is something else going on at PTI that is particularly relevant now.  

   Wilbon is a Black man from the south side of Chicago. Kornheiser is a White, Jewish man from Long Island, New York.  For 19 years the two have talked about more than just slam dunks and quarterback sacks.

   Sometimes issues in the sports world touch upon race, or it might be just sports figures reacting to racial issues in the larger society.

   Colin Kaepernick and others kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games to protest police brutality is one example.

   As Buschel pointed out, the difficult discussions on PTI are actual discussions.  Mike and Tony are listening to each other.

   “Regardless the topic or depth of disagreement, their endgame is always concord and kinship,” Buschel wrote.

   “This is a primer on how people of different color and religion and ancestry and geography get along,” Buschel wrote.

   “The take-away from PTI is that racial harmony is not a sweet-potato-pie-in-the-sky ideal, but something within our reach, today, now. Just look and listen. Instructions are included, in plain English, in living color.”

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