Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness

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THERE WAS A time, probably halfway between the launch of ESPN the Magazine and the day DirecTV's sports packages made us free at last, when there were basically two kinds of sports fans: those who still read Sports Illustrated every week, and those who did not.

These days, there are those who log on daily to ESPN.com and dig up columns by former print journalism mavens like Hunter S. Thompson, and those who refuse to waste life's moments waiting for an X Games ad banner to load onto their screen so they can sort through another pile of Disney-backed "branding" from the "Worldwide Leader in Sports." It's an outfit that now "re-brands" in an all-too-frequent self-referential cycle of doom that would make Ray Bradbury proud.

ESPN could dig up George Plimpton, reintroduce Jimmy Cannon as a blogger or repackage Ernest Hemingway himself for a live web chat-and few wanderers among the cluttered sports media landscape would take notice. ESPN has its own flavor of Gatorade? Cool!

Though the ESPN logo and "branding" have been miraculously left off the cover packaging for this book, the use of "sports desk" as one of his many requisite subtitles for Hey Rube is laughable. Of course there are no desks in the virtual office of today. And once you start recognizing some of his columns from their original appearances on the agonizing ESPN website, cuss words and references to sex and drugs suddenly appear without a finger-wagging Mickey Mouse icon stepping on his prose.

Had he just left the title as Hey Rube, then there's no problem. It's all the add-ons and sub-links and watering down that kills something short and sweet like the two words Hey Rube. This material is a long way from the quality columns HST had in one of the San Francisco dailies a decade or so back. But who remembers that stuff? Certainly not the prized demographic "audience" of ESPN.com.

The press release from his publisher described Thompson's ESPN.com work as "freewheeling." That's dot-com speak for "the old-timer mails it in." As the reader gets acquainted with Thompson's obvious discomfort with the rigid ESPN.com parameters, rules and regulations, it feels like the next page will certainly contain the requisite pop-up ad for Orbitz or About.com-just two of the meaty minotaurs of interruption crushing ESPN.com users four to six times per minute.

Hey Rube reads as if Thompson dusted off his own style template, plugged in basketball or football terms, then hit "send." The rest is a double-parked Bush-bashing bandwagon and rich-guy-in-the-mountains caterwauling about the post-9/11 police state. Almost every column has a point where he annoyingly catches himself not writing about sports; apparently this is a sin on ESPN.com. He then feels obligated to throw in some vacuous NBA observations, or manufacture some NFL playoff angst and betting fantasies that are so forgettable you don't even want to go look up what actually happened in that big Denver-Oakland game in 2002.

Although it's hard to blame Thompson for this squalid compilation, it does chip away at his relevance. The online columns thankfully ceased long ago, suffering the fate of a planned obsolescence whose endgame had always been this old-fashioned book. There may or may not have been some ESPN.com censorship along the way, but who cares?

Hey Rube was a good idea back when ESPN.com recruited Thompson through his old pal John Walsh. Initial publicity waned quickly, and the column was soon virtually buried on the site. Now it is barely even archived in the "Page 2" section, which is now behind a tab for "Page 3." As of last week, "Page 3" had riveting headlines for the usual "list" stories about who is the sexiest athlete (a great "web" idea), a piece about the "arrival" of the Madden 2005 video game, and then another list piece about shortcuts and tips for that same Madden 2005 game.

Gonzo, huh? How long before there's a "Page 4" about how great the original "Page 2" was? If you buy the overpriced ticket, I guess you go ahead and take the lame ride. o

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