You Want to Know The State Of Sports, Keep Up With This Jones
Game Theory With Bomani Jones Is The Perfect New Entry To Late Night On HBO
Bomani Jones has been around sports media for quite a while but because I tend to avoid cable sports talk in any format, I didn’t become aware of him until last fall when Game Theory With Bomani Jones debuted during the spring of 2022 after Late Night With John Oliver. While I found quite a bit of his commentary insightful — and very funny — I did not give him the time he deserves because I wasn’t prepared to combine sports and comedy.
Over the last year, during the revival of Bob Costas’ HBO series, I ran into Jones quite a bit overtime as he was a frequent panelist on Costas’ show. My opinion of him only improved over that period, as he was more to willing to engage in thought provoking commentary with one of the all time greats about issues as being forced to deal voting at Cooperstown and blasting Major League Baseball for putting the PED players in the hands of the writers rather than taking a stand, his problems with some of the larger issues with football’s diversity in hiring coaches and even willing to take a position on some of the more controversial issues involve Kyrie Irving’s posts on the internet. But it wasn’t until this January when, in the middle of channel-chasing I heard him talk about Brett Favre and his involvement with the Mississippi welfare ‘misappropriation’ fund. He talked for more than fifteen minutes not just about how badly Favre had been almost crying out to be caught in this scandal, how Favre has never suffered any consequences for anything in his career and perhaps most importantly, about how much a joke the TANF system actually is when it comes to helping people. When John Oliver used this scandal to talk about TANF and the flaws of welfare in general, it confirms that for all intents and purposes, Jones is the John Oliver of sports commentary — you know, if Oliver were an African-American.
By this time, I watched all of Season 2 to this point and realized just how brilliant — and hysterical — Jones can be on just about every level of sports. Though its worth noting that unlike Oliver, who uses humor to argue about the messes of society, a lot Jones’ commentary is surprisingly optimistic and uplifting in comparison. And its not necessarily because he’s dealing with issues that are much lighter than Oliver’s. When he wants to, he can utter some profound truths through his commentary. In the lead-up to this year’s Super Bowl, he went into great lengths about how much it meant to him as an African-American to see two opposing teams with black quarterbacks — something the non-football fan might well not have known the significance of. He made it very clear that many franchises are not willing to build teams around African-Americans (and he made a very clear reference that one of the few exceptions was Colin Kaepernick) and that sometimes the politics force you to make strange allegiances — he told a story of just how hard it was to root for the then Washington Redskins the year that won the Super Bowl for that exact reason.
He’s also willing to devote stories to people who he thinks might be problematic for the future of sports — the bizarre rise of Jake Paul, who he thought was very dangerous because of his influence among Gen Z and the way he had made alliances with micro betting, which is basically betting on sports on crack. He engaged in a hysterical interview with a clueless Paul at the end, and was understandably overjoyed this week when Paul lost his first fight. (I’m not a boxing fan, but Paul struck me as enough of a prick in that interview that I would have loved to see him knocked out myself.) He also is willing to deal with the significance of record we probably should pay attention to more such as LeBron James breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record, as well as how different it was from the play of Michael Jordan (in his words: “Jordan had to learn to share. Lebron had to learn to be selfish.) And while he is willing to bring race into the topic when it needs to be, he also knows sometimes that it is harder to accept that sometimes a great player is a great player. He knows that some African-American fans are pissed that Nikola Jokic is about to win three consecutive NBA MVPs — something that Jordan and Lebron couldn’t do — but then reminded them that Jokic is a great player. (That said, he also made it very clear the white sports commentator who spoke over an African-American one was absolutely taking the wrong tone.)
That’s the thing about Jones — he knows just how bad the equation is for African-Americans in sports and just how different the rules are. He made it very clear about how Dan Snyder’s repeated abuse of the Washington Football Team — which just keeps getting worse — is not getting a single punishment. He made it very clear that the media goes out of its way to accuse Qatar and Saudi Arabia of ‘sportswashing’ and seems perfectly fine ignoring that America has a pretty successful history of it on its own. (He points out Jesse Owens’ gold medals in Berlin did not allow him to enter the Empire State Building through the front door to attend the ceremony honoring him. He could have just as well pointed out the Olympic Committee was willing to deny Jim Thorpe his gold medals mainly because of their problems with a Native American winning.) But he’s also willing to give credit where its due. Before the Super Bowl, he ran a segment about the NFL’s surprisingly policies when it comes to giving money to progressive causes — and why only he seems to know about it because the NFL is terrified of alienating both conservatives and progressive fans. (He actually ran a segment involving focus groups of both progressive and conservatives fans who made it very clear that any change in policy of either direction would turn them off the game. That said, they were perfectly with the NFL spending more money on progressive causes — because they knew that one way or the other, they were committed to their sport.)
All of this is fascinating to someone like me who is a casual sports fan to anything but baseball, and I was frankly somewhat terrified to see how Jones would cover it when he dealt with baseball in this week’s episode. To my utter shock, he pointed out facts of which I was completely unaware. I knew that baseball’s fanbase was aging significantly, but I didn’t know that when it comes to TV revenue, it’s actually doing better than basketball. (As Jones put it acerbically: “Turns out baseball is like skinny Al Sharpton. It looks like death warmed over, but its actually doing pretty good.) And I was astounded to learn that what Jones thinks would help baseball more is the one thing that the media is appalled by — spending more money on free agents.
As someone who lives in New York, you can’t not be aware of how Steve Cohen has opened his checkbook to a ridiculous amount for the Mets this past year. This is the kind of thing that George Steinbrenner spent more than fifteen years getting raked over the coals for, so I was astonished to learn that not only does Jones approve of this, but so do New York sports commentators, fans and Mets players themselves. Jones admits that this could go badly if the Mets don’t win the World Series, but then he reminded us that the San Diego Padres — by no definition a big market team — basically followed this same concept and managed to get even further in the postseason. (There’s actually more to this than I thought, and I’m going to get into it when I finish up my own series on baseball and its economic history as it very well might be a way up for the game.) I can’t imagine any sports commentator in the world actually going on the street and preceding this segment by saying: “Would you believe that billionaires can make this game better?” and then spend fifteen minutes backing up his words with proof. I don’t even think Bob Costas could do that.
Jones is also consistently funny, brilliant with some of the segments that serve as filler (this week in tribute to the Oscars he presented clips from five sports movies where white people exploit the triumphs of minorities — The Blind Side ‘won’) and unlike Oliver has interview segments every week with some of the most prominent commentators — such as Stephen A. Smith and Roy Wood, Jr. -and former athletes — Dominique Fishback was this weeks guest. I don’t know if there is a sports show like this on any other platform — like I said, I don’t follow this closely — but its hard to imagine another being this hysterical and informative at the same time.
HBO’s record in late night has been a mixed bag recently. Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas was killed after two brilliant seasons and Bob Costas has retired yet again, and some of its other series appear so erratically the viewer could be forgiven for thinking they were cancelled. (I was shocked when Random Acts of Flyness returned four years after Season 1.) Still, it’s hard to not to find a place for Game Theory in this constantly evolving world of late night, sports, comedy, and HBO itself. Bomani Jones has the makings of the kind of commentator who could be around for years — maybe decades to come. I hope that HBO will give him the chance. I’ll keep watching him as long as HBO puts him on the air.
My score: 4.75 stars.