If part of the fun of watching and thinking and writing and making casually cruel jokes about sport is the zipless broader meaninglessness of it all, and it is, it's also the case that taking it all so lightly might not bring out the best in us. Of course, as the recent and ridiculous Hall of Fame vote in baseball made clear, it's possible to take something both too seriously (as some sacred, sepia-toned thing) and not nearly seriously enough. But while not really knowing Kobe Bryant's secret self and its wounds makes it easier to call him a psychopath, and knowing the awful and alleged public parts (gross, sorry) of Ben Roethlisberger's private life makes it easier to gin up a casual loathing for ol' hamface, it's worth noting that this would all be much more difficult without all that distance. We don't necessarily need to search our souls before making a joke about Shaq's mumbling, ball-bearing-eyed studio work or Jay Cutler's Cutlerliness, of course. But it is easier when we don't.
It's easy to be annoyed by Shane Battier, for instance, what with his Duke-ish tryhardery and corporate-casual grit and his insistence on playing for the mostly (lest we forget) loathsome Heat. But it's easier when you don't actually consider what Shane Battier might actually be like, and how hard he works, and so on. Bryan Horowitz got at this in his terrific Why We Watch on Battier, depicting him as he mostly seems to be: a broadly good guy who is one of the more disliked characters in basketball. We make our jokes, about him and in general, because it's not difficult to, and it's not difficult to because we don't think about it enough to make it difficult. That's not quite fair.
Or, anyway, it seems that way until you hear Shane Battier sing the theme to "The Love Boat."
At which point all bets are mostly off. (The karaoke event he's advertising benefits the Shane Battier Take Charge Foundation, which helps send needy kids to college, by the way. Typical.)