Wednesday, New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey appeared on the Dan Patrick Show, a national radio program simulcast on NBS Sports Network, to push an endorsement deal he has with the cellular service company Qualcomm. It was a disaster.

The backstory: The hurler was one of the breakout stars of the baseball season, mixing incredible speed on his fastball with unhittable breaking stuff. He started the All-Star Game for the National League in July, and at age 24, he appeared to be the linchpin of a dominant starting staff—and perhaps the long-awaited rebirth of the Mets.

Then he got hurt a few weeks ago, like so many young pitchers. He has a partially torn ligament in his elbow. He was thought to require ligament replacement, known as Tommy John surgery, for the pioneer subject of this procedure. Late Tuesday, however, Harvey and the Mets announced that Harvey would attempt to rehab without surgery, a controversial decision.

So when Patrick got Harvey on his program, it went without saying, in his mind, that the bulk of the conversation would revolve around the decision not to cut open the elbow. Instead, Harvey stonewalled every question, awkwardly steering the discussion back to his promotional duties for Qualcomm.

“I did all of those answers yesterday and maybe at the appropriate time we can talk about that,” Harvey said. “But today is about Qualcomm.”

Well, no, it wasn’t. Patrick was visibly annoyed, and Harvey wound up apologizing. While the aftermath of the appearance has focused on Harvey’s increasing drift into boorishness, the real fun has been the surprise anyone has over how this media-athlete-interaction game is really played.

For the most part, when you hear a pro ballplayer on your local Porklover and the Coach show, he is either being paid for the appearance (star quarterback doing weekly spots get a few grand to spout platitudes for 10 minutes), or doing so at the behest of the sponsor for whom he is pushing product. There are certainly exceptions, especially with local teams—pro leagues mandate media availability throughout the week, so radio shows can rely on the local team’s linebacker coming on a few times a season without an agenda. And some dudes just like the sound of their own voice, or have their eye on a broadcasting career after the hitting ends.

But many times, the athlete has an endorser to plug, or a charity, or a book. A quid pro quo is generally expected—the athlete answers four or five sports-related questions, then gets 30 seconds to a minute at the end to push product.

That Harvey didn’t know this says less about his personal attitude than about his handlers, either his management or the folks at Qualcomm. Now, one would hope, he’ll know how the system works. But so should sports-radio listeners across America. Athletes are just like you and me; they don’t do much of anything for free.

Fast breaks

Updates on two recent developments in the cable sports wars:

Keith Olbermann’s new late-night show on ESPN2 has swiftly become can’t-miss television in only a few weeks, especially the opening monologue/harangue that is like a toned-down version of Olbermann’s regular “Special Comment” from his old MSNBC political show. It’s astonishing how sophisticated and verbose Olbermann can be in front of a camera, and retain his natural ease at the same time. Believe me, that’s rare. Even gifted commentators stiffen when the time comes to go in-depth and simply talk for several minutes at a stretch. KO makes it look easy, and boy is it compelling.

Olbermann was reunited with ESPN in part to blunt the momentum of the new competition from Fox Sports 1. While it’s great to have Olbermann back, judging by the anemic initial weeks of FS1’s signature SportsCenter-style program, Fox Sports Live, ESPN has little to worry about. Obviously, the kinks are still being worked out, but so far there is little to attract the viewer, even one fed up with the Bristol Boys. And the ratings are reflecting that.

For some reason, Fox wants to ram “FUN!!!” down the viewers’ throats, and that means mostly ex-jocks braying with fake laughter and confusing bigger with better—sets, graphics, the whole shebang. While not everything on the channel is as nausea-inducing as boxing commentator/raging misogynist Chael Sonnen’s shtick, the whole “Be jocular, dammit!” vibe misses an essential point.

For devout sports fans, sports aren’t fun. Games involving their favorite teams are survival events, not opportunities to riff. Believe me, when my Bengals are playing, I am not in the mood to laugh, even when they wins. I don’t think I’m alone here. Fox should realize this, up its journalistic standards, and try to outflank ESPN by being less of a shill to its corporate masters, not by going for the drunken frat boys who apparently find ESPN too much like trigonometry.

 

Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta.