In 1983, the winning word at the Scripps National Spelling Bee was "Purim". Seriously.
In my lifetime, thanks to ESPN, a popular documentary, a slightly less popular movie, ESPN, a hit Broadway musical, and ESPN, the Bee has gotten bigger, tougher, and geekier. And I can't figure out how I feel about it.
This year's Bee, the final rounds of which are now held on ABC in Prime Time and High Definition, was won by a home-schooled 13 year old who is also a math and music prodigy and admitted he doesn't even like Spelling all that much.
Hey, Evan O'Dorney! You just won the Scripps National Spelling Bee, what are you gonna do next? I'm going....to go study logarithms and get ready for Math camp! Then I'm gonna compose a symphony about how I'll never have any friends!
But it wasn't really my intention to bash the kids in this competition. They're brilliant kids, have insane memories, knowledge of foreign languages and word parts, and most of the kids that ABC spotlighted were involved in tons of other activities. O'Dorney fits right into that profile.
I do mean to bash home-schooling, though. I'm serious about the friends thing. Going to school and interacting with other humans is as essential to education as the schoolwork itself. Students learn social skills that will help them later on in life. There is an advantage to being a working part of society in addition to being one of its brightest bulbs. And for someone like Evan, who might have trouble making friends to begin with, home-schooling only lowers those odds even more.
Well, he is going to math camp, so that's something.
So what I really set out to do was bash ESPN a little. See, I still can't figure out why I like the spelling bee, but I do know that I used to like it more, before it went to prime time, before Stuart Scott interviewed the kids from backstage and compared them to Steve Nash, before Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic stumbled through pre-written cheeseball commentary.
The Spelling Bee broadcast is actually a tradition of ESPN's, going back to the days when the upstart cable channel broadcast anything that came anywhere close to being called a sport. You can't call the Bee a sport, but the drama of the competition is compelling and the kids are impressive. But ESPN is ruining it with oversaturation. These kids don't know who Stuart Scott is (most of them don't anyway) get him out of there. And the Mike and Mike thing, which included a Spelling Bee of their own on Sportscenter, was terrible. Golic got "Favre", Greenberg got "Roethlisberger", I got a little sick and turned off the TV.
Lately Sportscenter is more like this and less...um...good. It's just a giant commercial for everything ESPN broadcasts, plus 30 seconds of hockey coverage. Hockey is still a pretty popular sport in parts of the country, and if ESPN gave it a little more exposure, they might decide to go bid for the TV rights again, instead of showing so much girls softball. For the nationwide sports audience, the Stanley Cup Finals have to be more popular than girls softball. They just have to be.
The Stanley Cup Finals also should be more popular than the Spelling Bee, since winning a Stanley Cup is a greater achievement. Sorry to say it, Evan O'what's your name, but nobody will remember you in a few years, but we all still know Wayne Gretzky.
But that's what I like about the Spelling Bee, too. Not many people get on TV for academic achievement. One night a year dedicated to bright, young minds (without a gimmicky game show, certified morons, and Jeff Foxworthy) showing off their mental capacity and exposing the outer fringes of the English language to an increasingly dumbed down American public (most of whom are not smarter than a fifth grader) is great, and it's great television.
But Stuart Scott doesn't need to be involved for it to be great television. Nor does it need to be in HD, by the way. Pock-marked pre-teens don't need high definition. Yikes. I'll like the Spelling Bee a lot more when it retreats to daytime, standard definition, no frills, high-drama geekery.
What can I say, I'm a P-U-R-I-S-T.