Tuesday, December 22, 2009

For ESPN's Hoge, NASCAR Ignorance Is Bliss

Just when it appears that stock car racing is finally getting a bit of respect from the "stick and ball" world, someone comes along with a fresh slap in the face.

On Tuesday's Mike & Mike In The Morning on ESPN2 and ESPN Radio, guest hosts Erik Kuselias and former NFL running back Merrill Hoge -- filling in for the vacationing Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg -- discussed Jimmie Johnson's selection as the 2009 Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year.

Kuselias offered some interesting opinions and analysis of the selection, eventually saying that Johnson's dominance of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing made him worthy of being the first auto racer to be honored by the AP.

Hoge begged to differ.

The former Pittsburgh Steeler and Chicago Bear opined that “You don’t have to be an athlete to drive a car,” saying that he would have chosen Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt for the honor. “What did he do this year that makes him a better pick than Jimmie Johnson," asked Kuselias, prompting Hoge to admit that he had no idea.

Told of Johnson’s claim that he could beat virtually any NFL player in a five-mile run, Hoge claimed that he could beat Johnson, despite being “chubby and in terrible shape.” Asked by Kuselias what his finishing time would be, Hoge claimed to have completed a five-mile road race recently in a time of 20:10. For the record, that breaks down to just over four minutes per mile, true Roger Bannister territory.

Kuselias immediately challenged that claim, forcing Hoge to admit that it "may have been five kilometers, not five miles." For the record, five kilometers equates to approximately 3.1 miles, making Hoge considerably less formidable that he might have us believe. Still unwilling to admit defeat, Hoge promosed to call a friend during the commercial break to determine -- once and for all -- just how far he had run.

Merrill Hoge is entitled to his opinion, no matter how devoid of facts he may be. The question of whether race car drivers are true athletes has been debated for years, and not many (if any) minds have been changed.

Some have made light of the fact that Hoge was forced to retire from the NFL after suffering a series of severe concussions. You can draw your own conclusions from that, if you like. The bigger question, in my view, is how "The Worldwide Leader In Sports" can offer up Hoge as a qualified sports commentator, when the man admits knowing virtually nothing about one of the country's major professional sports.

If Hoge comes on the air tomorrow and says, “Basketball is a stupid sport, I know nothing about it, and I refuse to watch it,” he will likely not continue as an ESPN guest host. But the same level of willful ignorance is apparently acceptable to the powers that be at ESPN, so long as it's directed at NASCAR.

Merrill Hoge is a football guy, and there's nothing wrong with that. When he sticks to his little corner of the sports world, he does an excellent job. His gridiron knowledge is second-to-none, and he deserves a spot on ESPN’s NFL and College Football roster.

His sports accumen, however, seems strictly limited to football. His criticism of Jimmie Johnson’s Athlete of the Year selection is sad, if only because he readily (even joyfully) admits having no inkling of what he is talking about. ESPN can do better, whether or not they continue as one of NASCAR’s major television partners in years to come.

“The Worldwide Leader In Sports” should confine Merrill Hoge to the pigskin beat from now on, where his ignorance and bias are less visible.

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