Not a good week for sports judges. I'm going to try to lay this out as clearly as possible.
Round Six of the 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee began with 19 contestants, one of whom had been reinstated after a previous judging controversy. Between the several commercial breaks, only four of the first 13 to spell got their words correct. The primetime broadcast typically begins with around a dozen spellers, so it seemed like the pool was being whittled far too quickly.
After yet another ESPN commercial break, the Bee organizers then announced that all 10 remaining spellers on stage -- the four who had already gotten words right, and the six who had yet to spell -- would advance to the ABC primetime broadcast on Friday night. The order of spellers, I should note, is based on the alphabetical order of their home state. So the remaining kid from Texas was in, while both kids from California -- who had already spelled and missed -- were out.
(Organizers later explained that the sixth round would resume mid-stream during the primetime broadcast, so no spellers were gifted into the championship round, but this wasn't announced in the ballroom. As you can see above, they all celebrated as if they were in; one of these girls had already spelled, and the other hadn't.)
And then, chaos. There was some scripted bit involving Shaquille O'Neal. Everyone was trying to take pictures of Shaq. Organizers were attempting to set up a press conference for the 10 remaining spellers, less than half of whom had actually qualified for what is known as the championship round. Parents of at least one recently eliminated speller tried shouting out questions to Paige Kimble, the Bee director, and she tried to silence them.
"The rules have a provision for it," she told the parents and media members. "These children are competing in the championship finals," she said, gesturing to the press conference. "The rules have a provision for this."
Then the press conference started. There were a series of run-of-the mill questions for the 10 left standing, whatever you want to call them. Included in that group is Potomac's Lanson Tang, attempting to become the first D.C. area winner since 1984. Finally, at the end of the press conference, one of the kids themselves chimed in on the controversy.
"I don't think it's fair that so many got out and some just whooshed along," said 13-year old Elizabeth Platz, as audience members clapped and Kimble managed a frozen smile. "I'd rather have five finalists than five who didn't deserve it. I think it was unfair."
Kimble later dealt with the media again, explaining that the sixth round would simply be continued from where it had stopped, and that any of the remaining sixth rounders who missed his or her first primetime word would not be considered a championship finalist and would receive an identical prize as the previously eliminated contestants.
"These kids haven't gotten a free pass, the ones who didn't spell," she said. "And if they misspell, then they get the same prize and the same rank as the [previous] kids who misspelled....They're competing in what ABC calls 'The Championship Finals.' They're not officially championship finalists until they spell that final word in the sixth round."
That distinction, clearly, will be lost on most Americans, who are coming to this fresh. I don't know if this was a Bud Selig moment, exactly, but it certainly defies common sense. Why do the in-between spellers go to the finals press conference? Why do they get to be part of this Shaq event? Why will their local news broadcasts talk about them? Why do they get spotlighted on ABC? Why are they LISTED AS CHAMPIONSHIP FINALISTS ON THE BEE'S WEB SITE? I'm not the only one asking.
"It's not fair that just because you're from California and someone else is from Wisconsin that you shouldn't be there," thundered Sonia Schlesinger, a former D.C. speller who was eliminated in the fifth round but understands that what's right is right. "It's not fair. [Anvita Mishra's] from California and Andrew Grose is from Wisconsin and he gets to go and she doesn't?
"The Bee doesn't really understand. They're more worried about TV than about the Spelling Bee," she continued. "Ok, it's true, that they can't go over the time on TV and that they need enough finalists for TV, so they wouldn't be able to do another round. But that's the Spelling Bee. I mean, I know TV is a big deal, but it's not what the Bee is all about. The Bee is about spelling your words right and being fair."
She was standing near Mishra, who was in tears. Mishra tried to suggest that they should have finished the round, and if there weren't enough remaining spellers for ABC's purposes, then they could have some sort of re-spell-off.
"They're promoting TV rather than education," she said. "I could have done better. If they didn't have enough, they could have brought people back, and I could have done better."
"Maybe next year we should move to a state that starts with G," her dad, Anil joked.
Sure, a lot of this was about the honor of being recognized in front of those lights on ABC, but that's about rewarding them for their studies, too. This is the time the nerds get saluted by the sports broadcast. And then some of them get treated like the play-in teams in the NCAA tournament.
"Attention is encouragement," Anil explained. "There are so many different bees: geography bee, math bee, science bee. So many bees, and this is most popular. Why? Because it is there on the primetime TV. It is there, everywhere, everyone knows who is there. All the news, CNN, everyone covers it."
The early-exiting sixth rounders won't get covered. Because their states come early in the alphabet.
"It's just not right, at all." Schlesinger said. "If [the six remaining sixth rounders] get out in the first round tonight and they're not considered finalists, nobody's gonna know that. Everybody's gonna be watching them and thinking of them as finalists. It kind of tells you something about the Bee. They always say our mission is primarily an educational one. It's like, well, actually, our mission is primarily a media one."
"Is it just about making money?" asked Anju Mishra, Anvita's mom, who was especially angry that no one would answer her questions. "It's a bad precedent. Everybody should be equal.... This could be one of the reasons why there's a decline in the quality of the education in the United States."
I asked Kimble, the director, whether she feels badly for the kids who got sent home early.
"I don't feel bad at all for giving these children the opportunity," she said of the remaining 10 contestants. "Do I wish we could give it to 19? Yes, certainly, but that's not practical in a two-hour broadcast window. And, again, the provision is there for it in the rules. In fact, we met with the kids last night and we discussed it. It's happened before, and that's why it's in our rules, so we have provision for it. We know it's unpopular, and we don't like to do it, but sometimes you get into a position where that's exactly what you have to do."
Anyhow, about an hour later, they put the 10 sort-of-finalists in a group on stage. Some producer type directed all the remaining people in the audience to stand and clap and whoop for "the winners, who are going to be in the finals tonight," as he put it. Good times.
Postscript: From where I sit, the concerns were not allayed by ABC's handling of the primetime show.
"Ten have earned the right to be here," the host said to start the broadcast, even though only four had earned that right at the time.
"We started with 10 finalists tonight," he said later, completely missing the point.
This is just what the kids were saying Friday afternoon: that regardless of the exact definitions provided by organizers, anyone on that stage would be seen by the world at large as a real finalist. They each earned the flashy pre-produced ABC profiles, with hardly an indication that they weren't finalists yet.
And another concern of diehard fans was that the brutal words from the start of the sixth round would ease up at night, since the primetime broadcasts traditionally begin with more forgiving words. No balm there, either; only four of 13 sixth rounders survived in the afternoon, but four of six got their words right in primetime.
All in all, it was still a great event, but this one needs to be fixed. Maybe put them in a random order. Maybe have them ranked by how they qualified. Maybe tell the TV folks to take a hike. But something has to change.