No such thing as a slam dunk: Sport as unpredictable, undeniable reality television

Curator's Note

Sport is the linchpin of the contemporary mediascape. It's the ultimate reality programming: unscripted, improvisational, emotionally compelling, bounded only by the rules of whatever game is being played. It attracts mass audiences in an era of fragmentation. It's fun. And as the announcer in this clip says, "You could not have written a script that would match the drama here" – a statement both trite yet undeniably accurate. (Doubt me? Watch The Natural and its exploding light-tower finale.) I chose this clip because it's at once unique and representative of televised sport. Every sports fan has seen something like this ... but not this. A more familiar moment wouldn't offer something novel, as this does. Not only was CBS's Division II championship coverage largely ignored by television viewers, but the comeback shown was unprecedented. Knowledge of the context – Winona State University, the defending champion, had won 57 straight games; Barton College has fewer than 1000 students and was a heavy underdog – might add to viewer interest, but anyone appreciating sport, drama, or human striving to excel in any endeavor can enjoy this. The range of emotion in Anthony Atkinson's (#11, in the blue jersey) body language offers a depth of feeling unsurpassed in fiction: look at his aimless dejection after a foul, his peripatetic dribbling and scurrying to find an opening, his unbounded joy after sinking the graceful final shot. Best of all: Barton's comeback was fueled without a single three-point shot, ostentatious dunk, oversized superstar with massive ego, or hyperbole. It’s compelling without being spectacular. And I love that the game ends on the most quotidian of basketball shots: the layup.


I happened to catch the end of this game in the airport (by coincidence, I live not too far from Barton College) and found it to be a stunning dramatic moment. Obviously there was a much smaller audience for this type of game (D II schools are smaller and tend to be less successful at producing the kinds of identification associated with D1 schools), but I immediately found myself cheering for the underdog Barton. One added point of interest, I was fascinated by the race against the clock. The winning layup was shot with something like .2 seconds left, adding to the game-ending suspense (if the clock still rounded up to 1 second, that final layup might have been less thrilling). In that sense, I think the representation of sports drama has changed considerably in recent years.

The race against the clock definitely contributes to the drama; watching Atkinson catch the pass and dribble down the court as the seconds race away in the bottom of the screen still makes me hope he makes it in time. And I already *know* the outcome. One other reason I chose this, too, is because of the lack of identification with/of the schools -- since I think a lot of sports fans gravitate toward the underdog, unless they're already fans of the other team. It's sort of an odd phenomenon, really: Americans tend to embrace the scrappy underdog, the player or team who isn't supposed to win, rather than the favorite ... sort of the opposite of the way we handle, say, political or military situations. Your comment, Chuck, also makes me think of how odd it is that the use of graphics -- particularly the clock -- winds up *adding* to the drama rather than detracting from it. Personally, I find the clutter on the screen (the crawl, the score, the score of other games, etc.) problematic and irritating in most cases. Yet either producers limit the number of graphics on screen to detract from viewers' attention, or viewers are able to ignore it effectively, when the action is really intense. I'm tempted to say that producers limit the graphics at key moments ... but it's hard to tell from this example, since Division II basketball won't generate the kind of interest in statistics among fans as, say, professional baseball/football/basketball, or even Division I football or basketball.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.