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ESPN's Knight of Vulgarity

Is it noteworthy that this past Sunday evening, the sports network ESPN featured all manner of swear words, including the "F" word, on its showcase prime-time offering? Though this language, bleeped and unbleeped, had already found its way to the family TV set, what happened Sunday night was important because it speaks volumes about the curators of the popular culture.

"A Season on the Brink," the story of basketball coach Bobby Knight, was ESPN's virgin voyage into the land of original filmmaking. If this is any indication of its talents in this area, we can only pray this will be the last movie it ever attempts.

It was trashed by the critics across the board. In fact, they found "Season" to be worse than awful. "A piece of garbage ... one of the most disgusting things I've ever seen," said one basketball analyst. "A joke ... a cartoon," said another. The Washington Times's Dick Heller was unequivocal: "This sick flick is so abysmal [it could be] the worst sports movie ever made."

It wasn't just the dreadful plot. What caught the critics' attention was the level of ultra-obscenities in a movie aired during the so-called Family Hour on a sports network presumably visited by millions of youngsters. How blatant was this? The "F" word is used in one scene five times - in five seconds.

To hear the executives in charge of things at ESPN defend this garbage is to wonder how (presumably) grown men can stoop to this kind of spin.

ESPN spokesman Rob Tobias tried to explain that his network "felt strongly that [expurgating the obscenities] would significantly compromise the creative integrity and realism of the film."

It's just so predictable. The moment you hear someone in Hollywood defend the "creative integrity" of his work you know exactly what those code words mean: It's offensive, he has offended, and he has the right to offend in the name of "art." It's the same disingenuous argument used to justify portrayals of gratuitous sex and violence, or "art" that features dunking a crucifix in urine.

But Mr. Tobias's claptrap is made even worse by the suggestion that ESPN "felt strongly" that this was necessary for the "realism" of it all. After all, Bobby Knight does swear a lot, doesn't he?

So, too, did Harry Truman. Are all the documentaries about him unrealistic because we don't hear him swearing? Was "Brian's Song" unrealistic because it didn't feature Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers cussing the way we know football players do cuss? Was "Patton" unrealistic because actor George C. Scott never uttered the "F" word which General George Patton used freely? Was every James Cagney gangster movie unrealistic because he didn't have a gutter mouth in his films? Up until March 10, 2002, were all television movies about famous people "unrealistic" if they were known to swear but weren't depicted using the "F" word?

And if it was so necessary why did ESPN air the same movie on ESPN2 with the foul language bleeped out? Is the message here that ESPN has "creative integrity" but its sister network doesn't?

Enter the second grand excuse to explain why this network "felt strongly" about using obscenities: Poor ESPN had no choice: It's got to compete for scarce audiences with all those other cable programmers offering racy fare. One hears this all the time, and it's nonsense to suggest there's a market out there demanding this kind of work. Have you, or anyone you've ever known, ever watched a movie or television show and at its conclusion wished there had been more swearing?

There is no market demand, none whatsoever, for this. ESPN did this because Hollywood loves to shock, period. Worse still, the creative community wrapping itself in the mantle of "creative integrity" is declaring as sacred its right to offend, and any criticism of its work in defense of real integrity - basic standards of decency - becomes "censorship."

But just as obnoxious is the mindset of the executives in Hollywood. The late Steve Allen put it best in explaining the rules of behavior during what was known (correctly) as the Golden Age of Hollywood in the '50s and '60s. "When on television you were the guest of the family in the family's home," he would explain, "and since children were present there were things we just wouldn't say or do in front of them."

An honorable gesture? Surely if he were with us today Mr. Allen would reject the idea. He would say that it was just the decent thing to do. Decency. Now that's a novel concept for Hollywood, especially if it wants to take the oxymoron out of "creative integrity."