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CUTTING THE CORD

THE BALTIMORE SUN

We needed a break.

The two of us had been living together pretty seriously for a while, and the relationship had grown into something serious. We woke up together, ate together, worked together and went to sleep together. Was this the most successful relationship this side of 1950s television or an unhealthy lifestyle completely awash in co-dependency?

"I don't really know how to tell you this -- geez, this is hard," I stammered. "Look, I'm just going to come out and say it: I think we need a break."

Click.

I held my breath, bracing for the worst and slowly placing the remote control on the coffee table. Just one month, I promised myself. Just one month with no ESPN at all. Not in the car, the computer, the television or the phone. I was quitting Cold Pizza cold turkey. I stopped lunching with Dan Patrick, muted Stephen A. Smith and vowed no more John Kruk in bed.

You see, something had changed in our relationship. In recent weeks and months, I'd noticed that my daily routine was being dictated by a cable television network. It was my soundtrack and my search engine, and at some point -- I don't remember when, probably during a World Series of Poker broadcast -- we crossed the bridge from symbiotic to parasitic.

It became quickly apparent just how difficult my task would actually be. I woke up one morning refreshed, tuned the TV to a news channel and raced out the door before ESPN could even start with her early morning seduction. I drove for more than 10 minutes before realizing that I'd been listening to ESPN Radio the entire time. The station was just another part of a daily routine; when the car starts up, so does inane sports chatter. Clearly, this wouldn't be as easy as I thought.

I quickly erased the channel from my preset stations and decided I needed a battle plan. I'd also need to change the home page on my computer. For anyone who spends his or her day hypnotized by a 19-inch monitor, ESPN.com is like a nanny. You click "home" and it's like putting a 3-year-old in front of a SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon.

I also had to reprogram my television stations. I couldn't afford to flip through the channels and succumb to temptation. How many times in the past had I attempted a quick check of the ticker and then before I knew it, three hours had passed and I was watching Koreans smack a shuttlecock back and forth?

The first week flew by and was actually a bit of fun. I felt like I was playing an elaborate game of dodgeball. Plus, there was a sense of purpose behind my mission, some noble cause that justified my newfound sports ignorance.

"Sorry, I couldn't open that link you sent me."

"Really? Kobe was on Patrick's show?"

"Nope, missed that game last night. Who won?"

By early in the second week, though, my task had become a chore. I felt somewhat detached and started resenting ESPN. I knew the network had integrated itself into our daily lives, but until you make a concerted effort to avoid it, it's hard to understand just how much it permeates our conversations, our schedules, our daily culture.

There was one night I was getting a bite to eat in Canton. I sat with my back to the televisions, the ones beaming ESPN in the bar area. Just my luck, I was facing a mirror and unintentionally kept stealing guilty glimpses of a baseball game. Actually, truth be told, the TVs kept stealing glimpses at me.

"I hate that guy," said a friend, pointing to Stephen A. Smith in a commercial. Before I knew it, an entire conversation unfolded on something I didn't see. And this was happening every day. All anyone seemed to ever say was, "Did you see...?" or "Did you read...?" or "Did you hear...?"

NO, I MISSED IT! CAN WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE?

By the third week, my reality of ESPN had become completely obscured. The two of us had been so intimate, so close for so long, and yet I had been blind to the founding tenets of our relationship. Suddenly, the more I tried to avoid ESPN, the more I seemed to notice her.

In conversations, I began equating the network to Big Brother. I was convinced the NSA was somehow involved. I kept her out of my home, but still, she was everywhere: restaurants, bars, stores, hotel lobbies, airports, in the office. What did these televisions broadcast before the Worldwide Leader came along?

And there were bigger questions, of course: Had I been seeking out ESPN all these years? Or had she been seeking me? How could I possibly avoid the network if she seemed so intent on chasing me? ESPN -- her TV stations, her radio signal, her magazine, her Internet site -- had become a stalker hiding in my shadows.

"Do you think I can obtain a restraining order against a television network?" I asked a lawyer friend.

I needed help. I consulted an About.com article on breakups. "Bond with other singles," it said, and I realized that by merely shunning ESPN, I was allowing this huge void to linger. Why should I do that? I'm young, I'm active, I'm the target demographic -- there are plenty of other networks that would love to have me in their audience.

I watched Iron Chef America on the Food Network, a program about Hitler's family on the History Channel and four episodes of Three's Company on TV Land. The next day, when others wanted to talk about the NBA Finals, I effortlessly steered the conversation. "Yeah, Dwyane Wade strikes me as the Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto of the NBA."

I read two books in one week, I reconnected with old friends, I even did a sketch of Camden Yards from the top of my building downtown.

By the end of the fourth week, I had no idea what ESPN's flapping gums thought of the Steve McNair trade, the Belmont Stakes, the World Cup or the U.S. Open. And -- here's the weird thing -- I'm not sure that it mattered.

My month ended with little fanfare. In fact, it wasn't until midday that I remembered the final week had passed, and it wasn't until later that evening that I even picked up the remote control. A baseball game was on and I caught a few minutes of it.

I didn't need to watch, but I was glad the option existed. ESPN has engrained itself so much as the brand of the sports fan, that we sometimes forget that it is just an option. There are other Web sites, other outlets and other highlight shows.

I flipped the channel. A Pimp My Ride rerun was on MTV. I set down the remote.

"ESPN, I've learned something during our time apart. I love you and we really have no choice but to keep this thing of ours going. But we also need to remember that there's so much more out there in this world, and as tough as it might seem to be, I really think it's time that I see some other channels."

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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