Saints and Swearing

The NFL's pro football playoffs are a ratings bonanza, attracting millions upon millions of viewers, including millions of little boys who love the game, one of whom is my ten-year-old son Reid. The most intriguing story line of these playoffs is the dramatic turn-around of the New Orleans Saints, not only their wins on the field, but their dramatic recovery from Hurricane Katrina. The Superdome has been transformed from a site of post-flooding nightmares to a gleaming and triumphant setting for victory.

So it was sad, but not unexpected, that at least one New Orleans fan would interrupt the festivities for something that remains far too common in sports today: emphasizing the “fan” in “profanity.” It's bad enough that you can't take your children to sporting events without wishing for soundproof headphones to protect them from the cascades of cursing that occur all around you. Too many fans clearly believe that the high ticket prices entitle them to bellowing tirades that would make your grandmother faint. Far worse was the decision of a network to spotlight the profanity on national television to poison the experience for all the young people watching at home.

After a successful Saints play during their recent playoff victory over the Philadelphia, the Fox broadcast featured a close-up on three cheering fans. In the middle, as the center of camera attention, was a bouncing blonde woman in a skimpy black T-shirt with ironed-on letters clearly reading “F— DA EAGLES,” unedited.

Thanks, Fox, for entertaining my little boy this way.

This was not an incidental “oops” shot by Fox. Let us count the ways. 1) Out of 70,000 fans, this girl was targeted for coverage by the cameraman. 2) It wasn't a fleeting Janet Jackson moment: it stayed on screen for several seconds. 3) It wasn't even a live shot, where such mistakes can happen. That display of Saint fans' exultation was shot, then replayed after a replay of the successful action on the field. Thus 4) it had to be the director's decision deliberately to air this footage on national television.

On national television. At about 8:30 p.m., during the “family hour” for those on the East Coast; 5:30 p.m., smack in the middle of the afternoon for those on the West Coast. When millions of youngsters were watching.

This potty-shirted girl was not the stadium's center of attention, as was the case with the infamous Super Bowl spectacle of 2004. It was not an unavoidable fracas, like say, the Detroit Pistons-Indiana Pacers basketball brawl that erupted between players and fans later that year.

Presumably the Fox network didn't hire a vision-impaired camera operator who couldn't know the image he was capturing for the control booth. Presumably the director in the truck wasn't blind to the content he was choosing when he called for the “Number 3!” or whatever camera shot.

Fox executive producer Ed Goren told the Philadelphia Inquirer that a time code covered the screen where the shirt appeared in the production truck, thus blocking the director's view of the offending lettering. But even if that's true, millions of people caught that shot on television and one has to assume that someone up and down the Fox chain of command also saw it. Why didn't someone scream the message to the announcement booth that an immediate apology was in order? But no one at Fox seemed to mind. Not a word was said during the game, or after the game.

A plodding three days later, after an uproar, Fox finally apologized – sort of. Spokesman Dan Bell told AP “it was unintentional, inadvertent, and we apologize.” Unintentional? Inadvertent? It was nothing of the sort. Shades of the “wardrobe malfunction” excuse we heard after the Viacom/Janet Jackson show.

And there's another twist to this apology. Fox, like Viacom before it, really doesn't mean it when it apologizes. How do I know this? Lawyers for both networks have filed suit in federal court demanding the right to air unlimited obscene language at any time of day. How sincere is this “apology” if Fox is spending fortunes on legal bills to acquire the right to do this at will, over the public airwaves, in front of children, without consequences?

Obscenities, both visual and audible, airing during live sports programming are becoming far too routine because coaches, players and fans increasingly simply cannot behave in front of cameras and microphones. The problem would be solved – immediately – if networks like Fox would implement a simple five-second delay. But so long as these networks refuse to take this little step, they cannot claim that the subsequent airing of obscene programming is “inadvertent,” and the standard “apology” after the fact rings hollow.