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On the Enduring Appeal of Around the Horn

Tony Reali at his console with panelists behind him on Around the Horn

I don’t remember when Around the Horn premiered on ESPN. According to Wikipedia, it was in 2002 and the show was originally hosted by Max Kellerman, but for me this is kind of like how Chuck Woolery was the host of Wheel of Fortune before Pat Sajak—I can hardly imagine Around the Horn without Tony Reali.

I’ve always loved the setup: Reali presents topics to a rotating set of panelists, awards and deducts points as they respond, sometimes mutes them, and the winner gets 30 seconds to talk about whatever they want. It’s a showcase for sports journalists to demonstrate their knowledge and to make good (or bad) arguments about whatever issue is in play, but my favorite thing is the scoring system, which is just implicit.

Panelists in a row on Around the Horn

What’s clear is that Reali doesn’t award points based on whether he agrees with what Woody Paige or whomever else says—it’s about the reasoning. And the banning of certain words and phrases (enforced through point deductions) serves as a palliative to how professionals of whatever stripe can fall into cliché instead of presenting a compelling line of argument.

In many ways, I think Around the Horn is comparable to QI, where the point is never as much being right as it is being interesting. Being right is just a bonus. And, of course, Around the Horn is a show about sports, but it’s always been the form of it that I’ve found most compelling.

It would be easy to contend that the awarding of points is just arbitrary and based on the whim of the host, but I don’t think that’s quite right. What we get from Around the Horn—and from QI—is an idea of a standard of the interesting, which maybe you can’t pin down in a set of bullet points, but that doesn’t mean it can’t operate.

I used to think—in the Before Times—that it could be fun to take the kind of model Around the Horn presents and transpose it to the domain of politics. But I think everyone is just too nasty for anything like that now. Still, I find hope in the form itself, and the idea that we can assess what points of view are worthy of consideration.

Panelists on Around the Horn with Buy or Sell to the right

I’ve had the habit of watching Around the Horn on a regular basis, on and off, for most of my adult lifetime. I watch it in the dog days of summer when I hardly care about the topics. And this is why: it asks intelligent people to make cogent arguments for their positions, and offers an assessment of them in terms of their cogency.

But it does it all with levity. Around the Horn is fun. Usually the show ends with Reali crumpling up his notes and tossing them at the camera, and I’ve always enjoyed that Paper Toss is generally on the list of topics for the day.

He has the discernment to not do the paper toss when Face Time hits a solemn note, however. And indeed the secret sauce of Around the Horn is how much hangs on Tony Reali’s powers of discernment. It could easily devolve into blowhards yelling at each other, but that’s not what this show is.

It can be easy to view Around the Horn as something like the opening act for Pardon the Interruption, and I’ve certainly always been in the habit of watching both shows when I’ve been in the habit of watching either. But the more time goes on, the more I find myself appreciating what Around the Horn is doing more.

I hadn’t been in that habit for a couple of years for a couple of reasons. I won’t bore you with the details. But if you’re like I was, I’d encourage you to come back to this show. And if you’re somehow someone who likes sports who’s never watched it, I’d encourage you to check it out.

Around the Horn airs daily at 5pm ET, Monday to Friday, on ESPN

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

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