Time was, we thought that large numbers of those who used cell phones were into drug trafficking. We thought that because it was true.
Recently, however, there has been a sea change. Cell phones these days still are the cornerstone of nefarious goings-on, but - thanks to sophisticated marketing - they have gained unquestioned legitimacy among those not wanted for parole violations.
The phones are ubiquitous (close to 50 million subscribers) and intrusive (golfer Phil Mickelson twice was interrupted in a recent tournament by the same ringing cell phone, according to Associated Press). But nowhere are they more in evidence than around sports.
Listen to the cell-phone users at and around games and you will fast learn that many of these people who get paid to attend and report, or fans who pay just to
sit and watch, have many other things on their minds.
Many, many things. Almost none have anything to do with sports. Here's what they talk about, in descending order:
1. Problems with boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives: 96.4 percent.
2. Broad-based gossip: 29.7 percent.
3. Trashing the boss and/or the publication, station, or network worked for: 18.3 percent.
4. Where to have dinner: 10.8 percent.
5. Legitimate conversation relating directly to job and task at hand. 0.000873 percent.
The far-flung Sporting Scene staff realizes the numbers add up to more than 100 percent, but The Sporting Scene Department of Polling says the results are, nonetheless, statistically viable.
Notice the reference five paragraphs previous that starts: "Listen to the cell-phone users ...'' This is what is incredible. You cannot help listening.
For reasons that aren't clear, when cell-phone users start talking, they somehow feel as if they have been covered by an invisible, soundproof bubble that keeps their millions of casually chosen words from reaching the ears of those nearby.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. They prattle on, oblivious to us, about their love lives and their gender-specific ailments as if we have been struck deaf for the duration of their call. They go into details that would embarrass TV soaps, the tabloids, and Madonna. And often all of this while Greg Maddux is pitching for the Braves or Michael Jordan is going nuts for the Bulls in front of them.
This was brought into bold relief during the Nagano Olympics earlier this year. There was widespread opinion voiced that CBS did a perfectly rotten job on the telecast. Main reasons proffered were that the network didn't show enough live events, had too many features, and handled the time difference between Japan and the US poorly.
The real reason: Cell phones. The Sporting Scene Department of Polling found that of the approximately 1,500 CBS employees it took to botch their assignment so thoroughly, 1,497 had cell phones. Average daily usage was 13.4 hours. Average time devoted to business: 4 minutes.
We know because we listened. We had to listen. They sat next to us and bared their souls.
On a crowded bus headed for the high parts of the Japanese Alps, one woman CBSer was already in the panic mode because she had been having such a swell time with a new male acquaintance who loved her for her mind. That's what she told several recipients of her calls, anyway. But things were going awry because her husband had decided to make a spur-of-the-moment trip to visit her. Now, to be charitable, something like this does demand attention and there are logistical problems to be addressed.
But why would anyone with even a smidgen of self-respect tell all to a busload of strangers? We thank her for the entertainment. But would you do this?
Is propriety dead?
At games, the content of the calls is the same when the fans go wireless. Yet, beyond the utter lack of propriety, having someone behind you chatter to her mother about a recipe for corn bread is terribly distracting when the reason for a ballpark visit is to see and talk about Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr. It's exactly like enduring talkers in movie theaters.
But above all, cell-phone users are comforted knowing we can't hear them when they talk on their cells.
* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org