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‘Power Play’: A Look at Hot Sports Shots Off the Court

You’d assume that a sports program titled “Power Plays” would be about Tonya Harding. After all, what other power monger would the United States care about?

Instead, it’s the behind-the-scenes choreography of the sports business that is examined in this fascinating, three-part documentary on PBS. “Power Plays” airs from 9 to 11 tonight, Tuesday and Wednesday on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15, and from 8 to 10 on KVCR-TV Channel 24.

Offering a sideways scan of American culture, producer Nicholas Kent (“Naked Hollywood: Money, Power and the Movies”) and directors Nick Read and Anand Tucker repeatedly emphasize that the United States is not only obsessed with sports but also (as Harding and Nancy Kerrigan can now testify) with sports celebrities. And that laser-like obsession nourishes the sprawling sports industries for which even millionaire athletes ultimately toil.

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“Power Plays” ranges from tonight’s Michael Jordan entree to Wednesday’s look at the abutting Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson eras of the Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys, along with the slick marketing schemes of pro basketball and hockey.

Each segment contrasts power wielders and power seekers. More arresting tonight than the Jordan piece is a comparison of the glamour-domed universe of heavyweight champ Evander Hollyfield, seen fighting Larry Holmes for $18.5 million in Las Vegas, with the low-budget combat of dreadlocked Shannon Briggs, a green but promising heavyweight who gets $500 for dropping a stiff a few seconds into the first round. Backing Hollyfield is the Duva family, a premiere management team. Managing Briggs is the lesser-regarded Michael Marley.

In a system that bloodies everyone, the strategy for young fighters is to build wins even if it means recruiting barely breathing setups as opponents. “We do plunder a few graveyards here or there,” Marley admits.

On Tuesday, “Power Plays” juxtaposes controversial Marge Schott and her Cincinnati Reds with minor leaguers in Salt Lake City and makes Chicago’s old Comiskey Park a nostalgic metaphor for baseball’s simpler age.

There’s also an even livelier section on sports agents, focusing largely on David Levine, a charming, 30ish go-getter whose prospects for getting his collegiate football client a multimillion-dollar deal with the pros light him up like a kid at a video arcade.

It gets grimier, though--witness an incident with notorious agent Norby Walters involving alleged mob ties and police misconduct.

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What “Power Plays” all but omits, curiously, is the media’s incestuously symbiotic link to big-time sports, at once building it up and tearing it down. As with politicians, actors and other non-sports celebrities, the coverage can get pretty ugly.

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After all, it’s Harding and everyone who has known her in her lifetime (Ralph Edwards, eat your heart out) who now leads U.S. newscasts. After spinning anecdotes and tall tales, they await the inevitable question, the one being asked infinitum.

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Should Tonya Harding be able to compete in the Winter Games?

Everyone must have an opinion. It’s positively un-American not to have an opinion. Everything else in the world is on hold until we get this thing settled.

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Does this story have steroid legs or what? Like a ticker tape that won’t stop, the daily, hourly updates just keep coming: She’ll be indicted this morning. This afternoon. Tomorrow. Sometime this week. This month. This millennium. Reportedly. Maybe. Sources say. Sources hint. Alleged sources allegedly hint. The people have a right to know, so break out the headline.

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Tonya Harding may or may not be indicted.

Then last week came the home video, the damaging home video, footage of Harding hamming it up with a friend, charging the camera like some maniac. Do you hear, LIKE SOME MANIAC!

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Hmmmm. Tonya appeared carefree. She was having fun, meaning either that she’s free of guilt or is just coldhearted. Do you hear, COLDHEARTED!

When running out of rumors to spin, TV reporters grunge under rocks for obscure angles that don’t exist but need to be reported anyway. Such as asking athletes in other sports if they would ever consider clobbering an opponent.

Would the Olympic swimmer, for example, consider “knocking out"--a euphemism for drowning--an opponent? We’re on the edges of our seats waiting for the answer. And stay tuned for the tiddly winks champ. Would he break a foe’s knuckles? Just to win? Has winning come to this? Has it, huh? Has it? Is alleged hussy Tonya Harding a metaphor for the evil in sports? Will opposing Little Leaguers be clubbing each other with their Louisville Sluggers?

Hmmmm. Louisville. Kentucky. The Kentucky Derby. The story is growing. Quick, get somebody to the bluegrass state to see if Tonya’s been spotted there trying to fix the derby by beating up thoroughbreds.

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Hmmmm. Bluegrass. Grass. Is Tonya Harding doing dope? She did look wild in that home video. Maybe if we hired professional sniffers, some dogs. . . .

And wait a minute! We almost missed the biggest angle of all. Has anyone quizzed Charlie Manson about this? Better send over a camera crew before Geraldo does. After all, February is a ratings sweeps month.

So terribly sexy is this story that just about everyone is hugging it like a lover. The networks broke into their midday programming last week for live coverage of the plea bargain by Tonya’s husband and the statement of his lawyer. Two of the network anchors who weighed in were none other than NBC’s Tom Brokaw and ABC’s Peter Jennings, their mere presence validating the magnitude of the coverage. Why, we haven’t seen them on a story this big since Michael Jackson.

Dan Rather was probably tied up on the Lorena Bobbitt retrospective. So, who should CBS dispatch to Portland for several days of Harding coverage? None other than schmoozy Connie Chung. The gleaming centerpiece of her steely reporting was Thursday night’s “Eye to Eye With Connie Chung” sit-down with Harding’s father. You braced for the brutal question you knew was coming, the question (gasp) she just had to ask.

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Did he think that Tonya would be disappointed if she didn’t go to the Winter Games?

Bold work. Yet competitors were nipping at Chung’s heels, for almost simultaneously on another channel, ABC’s “PrimeTime Live” was doing Tonya and Jeff: The Courtship.

Meanwhile, bring on more of those pictures of Tonya Harding on the ice. The daily dose, the ones replacing a dancing Michael Jackson grabbing his groin. Each time she falls, those reporting it fall with her.

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