By Kalle Oakes

Staff Writer

What’s a six-syllable word for “over the top?”

The network that brought us Australian Rules Football, Ultimate Frisbee, Pool and the WNBA did its annual part to extend the boundary of sport beyond recognition Thursday.

Forsaking athletic endeavors for most of the morning and afternoon, the ESPN family of networks captured every blank stare and monotonous dictionary reading in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee.

Once niche programming by an enterprise desperate to fill 24 hours of air time, the bee now gets better treatment than the Stanley Cup finals by a larger enterprise more desperate to fill 24 hours of air time.

Seriously, I expected Chris Berman to show up in one of his ill-fitting, vomit-orange blazers and start inflicting contestants with nicknames referencing obscure 1970s tunes by the Brothers Johnson. And I’m still waiting for Mel Kiper Jr. to tell me that the home-schooled kid from North Dakota better work harder at the SAT combine if he wants to get into Johns Hopkins at 15.

That’s not to say the Worldwide Leader in Sports didn’t send at least the A-minus team to Washington. Stuart Scott, Mike Greenberg, Mike Golic and Chris McKendry all did their part to beat viewers over the head with the “aren’t these kids more adorable and important than Kobe Bryant?” card.

Hey, I’m all about education. I think it’s wonderful that kids who couldn’t catch a cold have a place to flex the organ that’s above their shoulders. Hopefully one of them will discover the cures for cancer, creeping obesity and Alzheimer’s and allow me to escape each of my genetic traps for another 50 years.

But no, I don’t think their preemption of the sixth and seventh reruns of the 2 a.m. “SportsCenter” and “This Week In Ping Pong” is even remotely cute, and no, that doesn’t make me a bad person.

Our society worships children. The generation that crammed the spelling bee, the Little League World Series and the Olsen twins up our nose is the same one obsessed with SUV-ing Johnny and Jenny (make that Hunter and Madison) to every team, playgroup and day camp their community can dream up.

It’s also the generation with more kids on Ritalin and Prozac and more metal detectors at schools’ main entrances than ever. Just sayin’.

I’ll be happy to let my 10-year-old budding genius pursue his passions for science and meteorology without vicariously suffocating him and without expecting TV, radio and the old gray mare to come running.

Let the kids be kids, give ’em a one-hour highlight show on PBS and hand ’em a baseball, for goodness sake. Maybe someday they’ll wind up on ESPN for a legitimate reason.

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