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I feel sorry for the The Sunday Game pundits, but even more sorry for the audience

José Alvarado, point guard for the New Orleans Pelicans, was making his debut on TNT’s flagship NBA programme last week. They had him on the virtual court demonstrating something and before he departed, the panel shot a few questions his way.

fter a few stock responses to Ernie Johnson’s questions (“It’s been a privilege to play with my team mates,” “I’m so grateful to be healthy and enjoying the game”), Shaquille O’Neal, the retired 7’2” basketball legend and resident pundit, stopped him in his tracks.

“José. Next time Ernie asks you a question don’t be coming in here with those corporate answers. Relax man. Relax.” The panel laughed and joked. José looked embarrassed. He would fit right in on The Sunday Game.

The conversation turned to the poor form of the 76ers James Harden. Charles Barkley, the second of their three resident pundits, said, “At the minute, James couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with an ironing board.” Again, there was a whoop of laughter as they got down to another hugely entertaining conversation. Real, charismatic, dramatic, irritated, passionate, happy, unhappy.

Barkley said he was putting his money on the Sixers. Shaquille said, “Save your money for your kids and your new puppy.” Barkley said, “If this wasn’t live TV, I’d come over there and slap the black off you.” Again, an eruption of laughter and chat as they got stuck in. When the Sixers lost, they did a ‘Gone fishing’ segment, which they do when a team goes missing, dropping nets and using fishing rods to fish them out of the sea.

This is the highest-rated basketball show in the US, syndicated around the world, including to Sky Sports. They understand that the game, like the punditry, is about entertainment. So, they have a permanent panel of three, all of whom have terrific, strong personalities. They have an anchor who lets it go in whatever direction it goes. They are honest, fearless, funny and are not worried about getting annoyed or speaking their minds. So, we are drawn to them, young and old, because it is real. It is edgy, informative and most of all, entertaining.

Meanwhile, back in the RTE morgue, one would not be surprised to hear them say, “I’m sorry for your troubles” and, “What age was he?” The day-time pundits on The Sunday Game are forced to stand awkwardly behind podiums, like politicians about to make their opening statement. Instead of conversation, it is a stage-managed chore. Your turn. Now your turn. Now your turn. Now, competition time. The forced laughter as the unfunny but polite-to-smile-at remarks are made.

It is entirely unnatural. No one discusses a game like this. No one wants to hear it discussed like this. If you were in a bar and they were at it, you would make your excuses and get offside to another crowd asap. Because it is so stage managed and risk averse, no one says anything. Instead, it has been reduced to statements of the banal. “Dublin’s defence have held Meath to just six points.” “Tyrone’s goals are the difference between the teams.” And so on and so forth. As these dull statements of the obvious are made, one almost expects the Mike Myers character from Wayne’s World to turn to camera and raise an eyebrow.

For the Sunday night highlights show, the pundits don’t stand behind podiums. Instead, they stand behind invisible podiums, five metres apart, looking as comfortable as 15-year-old boys being asked to sing in public for the first time.

I do not know any group of people — apart from bomb disposal experts, or maybe hostage negotiators trying to talk a jumper away from the ledge — who stand so far apart when they are having a conversation. Imagine standing five metres apart in a triangle at a game, shouting over at each other, or in a bar, or in your house? “Here da.” “What son?” “What did you think of Clifford’s goal?” “What son?” “Clifford’s goal.” “His what?” “Why are you so far away son? And why are you standing? Come over and sit on the sofa.” If you did this in company, people would think you had lost your mind, or that you had a contagious disease.

The result is that instead of something entertaining to look forward to and enjoy, where we can see the real personalities of the pundits and get comfortable with them, and have something that brightens our Monday mornings, we are left with nothing.

As a friend of mine says, “There is more atmosphere on the moon.” Your turn. Corporate speak. Your turn. Corporate speak. Now your turn. Corporate speak. Ad. Competition time. Obligatory manager interview. Obligatory player interview. Final cheesy words about next week. Cue music.

I feel sorry for the pundits, who must need oxygen masks to bring them around when the show is over. But more for the audience, especially the younger audience, who simply will not watch if this continues.

RTE GAA has gone overboard. The RTE authority needs to go fishing.

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