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Washington Post Writer Trashes CBS for Showing MMA, Displays His Own Ignorance

Leonard Shapiro of the Washington Post has written a column that is ostensibly about the CBS network's decision to broadcast mixed martial arts but is in reality about his own ignorance. It's a column I would simply dismiss and move on if it were written for a community college media studies course, but which deserves more scrutiny because of its appearance in the august pages of the Post.

So much of the criticism of the sport of MMA, and of its media partners, is backed up by naivete and a wrongheaded fear that MMA is part of a coarsening of our culture. Case in point:
It was bound to happen given the increased visibility of mixed martial arts. But who knew that proud old CBS, the long-time home base for the likes of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, The Masters and Final Four would be the first major American television network to stoop so low as to elevate this so-called sport into a prime time slot on Saturday nights.
It's funny how people who want to talk about a time when television was noble and dignified always bring up Murrow. There are two problems with the approach: 1) CBS also broadcast Amos 'n' Andy in the 1950s, so it's strange to cast the period as one of high-minded fare. 2) When you reference a titan of journalism, the gaps in your own argument look all the more grievous.

More from Shapiro:
And wouldn't it be something if CBS aired its first MMA telecast a few hours after its Saturday afternoon Masters coverage on April 12? Perhaps network publicists could refer to the twin bill as Beauty and The Beast.

At the risk of once again clogging the e-mail boxes listed below with a batch of vile and occasional hate messages from rabid (in every sense of the word) followers of MMA, let me say what a revolting development it is that CBS has become party to this reprehensible programming.

I guess you could make a "Beauty and The Beast" argument, if you wanted to. Receiving vile messages is, sadly, part of being a writer these days. I once received vile messages after I wrote about an athlete saying the F-word on live TV. And -- get this! -- the vile messages were from golf fans. And the F-word was spoken at the Masters. And the TV network that broadcast it was CBS. And don't even get me started on the racist, sexist history of Augusta National, home of the Masters. But for some reason, I don't think any of this is what Shapiro is thinking of:

According to Kelly Kahl, the see-no-evil senior executive vice president of CBS prime time for the network's entertainment division, it's mostly being done for a possible ratings bump and more advertising dollars from the primo male 18-34 demographic MMA just might draw on the slowest night of the week on network television, once the CBS domain of Bob Newhart, Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart.
Once you get beyond the knee-slapper of naming Newhart twice, (He had two shows, get it?) you get to Shapiro's revelation that CBS is putting something on its airwaves because of "a possible ratings bump."

Even in Murrow's immaculate golden age, networks hope every new show would provide a ratings bump. The reason MMA is a good candidate to supply it today is that it's an exciting, compelling sport with under-served fans.

Question? If CBS had been in business during the Anthony and Cleopatra soap opera years, would it also have jumped at the chance a hundred years later to air the ultimate reality show featuring Lions vs. Christians? After all, the spectacle always drew sell-out crowds of 50,000 to the Coliseum, so why not allow the entire Roman Empire to get in on the action?

Obviously, that's a stretch.
That's a pretty lame attempt at walking back some dumb rhetoric. Sometimes, Mr. Shapiro, you have to hit the DEL key after you realize you write something awful.

It's not just "a stretch" to compare two professional athletes choosing to compete against each other in a sport less dangerous than boxing to prisoners being brutally executed.
But MMA also easily could be described as MMM, as in mixed martial mayhem -- not that far removed from street fighting.
This is a statement that's about as well informed as Rush Limbaugh's statement that the NFL resembles the Bloods and the Crips. Have you ever seen a street fight where there's a doctor on hand who's trained in diagnosing and treating cuts and concussions and who has the authority to end the fight? In mixed martial arts everyone agrees on the rules and a referee enforces them -- as they do in every contact sport.

And the stretching continues:
You put two guys (usually heavily tattooed) in a ring enclosed by a cage, surrounded by a howling mob, and just watch the blood flow as they pummel themselves into submission, or occasionally break a bone or three. That's entertainment?
I'm not being sarcastic when I say I have no idea what Shapiro's mention of tattoos is supposed to suggest. Would the ugliness Shapiro claims to see be more acceptable if the participants had fewer tattoos?

As for the howling mobs cheering -- they're a class of people called "fans," they've been known to show up at The Masters, and they're the reason the Washington Post pays Shapiro to write about sports.

Now, we come to the most offensive part of Shapiro's column.
Oh yes, women will also fight it out on CBS, yet another revolting development. Sadly in the first decade of the 21st Century, it really has come to that.
Yes, we certainly wouldn't want delicate little girls participating in a big, tough sport, would we? The women in the photo to the right were part of the first women's boxing club the opened in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. If they consider themselves fit to fight, I really do not particularly care if Shapiro is revolted by them.

Thousands of girls are on high school wrestling teams. I consider them inspiring. Does Shapiro consider them revolting? Those of us who favor equality among the sexes think it's great that more and more women are taking up MMA. Folks who think a woman's place is outside the arena of competition are a dying breed, but they can still take some comfort the fact that there are still no women in Shapiro's beloved "Beauty."

With the offensive part out of the way, let's return to the more mundanely uninformed bits of Shapiro's column:
I know from past experience that MMA aficionados will point out the high level of skill involved. It allegedly incorporates principles of karate, judo, wrestling and boxing and has been somewhat sanitized over the last decade from its earlier roots as basic no holds barred brawling more suitable for your friendly neighborhood alley.
"Allegedly?" Is he suggesting there's some dispute about whether MMA incorporates the principles of karate, judo, wrestling and boxing?
So why is it that nearly any time I happen to surf past the Spike or Showtime cable networks that currently carry MMA events, the combatants are beating the bloody bejabbers out of each other?
That's a difficult question to answer without sitting next to Shapiro. But as long as we're asking clever questions: Why can't the Post assign writers to opine about sports after they've done more than "surf past the Spike or Showtime cable networks"?

You'd like to think they're at least are getting big paydays for their efforts, and you know promoters are raking it in from $500 ringside seats and mega-pay-per-view shows that bring in millions.

Some MMA fighters make millions, others make thousands. All make more money than the amateurs who play college football, a sport that has had many more maimings and deaths than MMA. Does Shapiro object to CBS showing that?
Google MMA and you'll also learn that Anheuser Busch has become a big-time sponsor, once again because of the young male demographic that likes to swill its product while watching these matches. No doubt they handled the Budweiser concession at the Coliseum, as well.
Hmm ... People with tattoos, people who like to "swill" beer down ... call me crazy, but I think Shapiro has spent a lot of time imagining the people in front of their TVs watching MMA. And I think he might be picturing a different economic bracket then the folks who he imagines tuning into The Masters.

Way down in the column, Shapiro strikes on what could be a legitimate news angle:
Isn't it rather interesting that this deal was consummated by the entertainment arm of CBS, rather than the CBS Sports division? You think maybe Sean McManus, the classy and so very savvy head of news and sports at CBS wanted no part of foisting this kind of programming on a CBS sports audience far more used to seeing big-time golf, tennis, college hoops and NFL football?
(Again leading with the golf!) Shapiro could have called McManus and asked him, but apparently he didn't. It's clear Shapiro thinks NFL football somehow morally superior to MMA. Why is it that televising one athlete pummeling another is OK on a football field but not if it's in a cage? No doubt Murrow would have known, but the rest of us are doomed to wonder, since Shapiro won't lay out any real case.

You're probably not going to see Jim Nantz, Greg Gumbel, James Brown or any other regular CBS Sports announcer on the air doing MMA blow-by-blow on Saturday nights. Maybe there will be some technical help from CBS Sports people behind the camera, but any big-time sports broadcaster has to know it's hardly worth sullying his or her reputation on this kind of programming.

When he's not interviewing mascots, Jim Nantz has been on Arli$$. Greg Gumbel has been on Hollywood Squares. James Brown hosted World's Funniest Party Disasters. If those guys aren't on CBS as MMA broadcasts, it's because, as Kahl said, they have so much on their plate right now. If these are men worried about sullying their reputations, they're in trouble.

Kahl has heard the criticism of MMA before, and insists he was somewhat skeptical himself before becoming a true believer.

"We had to do some research as well," he said. "The sport did have real rough origins. We wouldn't be putting it on if it was in the shape it was five years ago. But the various organizations have done a good job getting it sanctioned and legitimized. There's very little question that there are fewer and fewer guys competing now who are barely in shape to fight in a bar. These are elite athletes and they take it very seriously.

"When I first heard about, I have to admit I was somewhat suspicious about it being a sport myself. But the more I watched, the skill level and the athletic nature of it convinced me."

I'm not ready to drink that Kool-aid quite yet.
Kahl describes doing what Shapiro won't, which is what Mark Cuban urged Shapiro to do: study MMA, learn about it, and find what everyone who studies it finds: It's a legitimate sport involving highly skilled athletes.

For non-believers like myself, at least there's a simple way to deal with MMA on CBS. If I'm home on Saturday night, I'll just surf right on by or pop in a DVD or read a book or work on the taxes or clean the garage or read and then quickly delete all those very ugly e-mails even now making their way through cyber space to my little old laptop.

Credit Shapiro for saving his dumbest line for last: After making a grand show of just how uninformed he is, and whining about how in this day and age readers can actually respond to writers, Shapiro makes clear that he'll be deleting the e-mails he gets in response. It's just sickening, the class of people that have access to personal computers these days, isn't it?

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