Back in 2013, for Deadspin, Drew Magary attended the annual Scripps Spelling Bee, in which 11 million kids spell off across America in a bid to become the brainy few who land onstage for the final round, and learns how such a simple contest had been sullied (S-U-L-L-I-E-D, SULLIED) by the need to keep the event exciting for ESPN’s television audience.
• The atmosphere at the bee is very supportive. I went around looking for nutbar stage parents, but most of the parents were either A) pleasant or B) too media savvy to act like insane people in front of a reporter. These parents weren’t talking to the media for the first time. The finalists who got knocked out late were all given standing ovations (genuine ones). The kids all high-fived one another when they got words right. Whatever cutthroat elements of the competition existed only existed under the surface, or behind closed doors. With one glaring exception …
• I can’t begin to tell you how fucked-up ESPN has made this event. In addition to changing the very rules of competition, ESPN made these poor kids tape canned segment after canned segment. Some of these kids were natural extroverts, but not all of them were. I can only imagine how awkward it is for a shy 12-year-old to have to dance around in sunglasses for an ESPN producer and then watch that canned footage up on the big screen with everyone in the house watching it. There were so many canned segments in the beginning—including a sketch in which Dr. Bailly re-enacts those AT&T ads with the dude in a classroom asking kids easy questions; a shitty Tom Rinaldi piece that reminded you that “every word is the World Series”; a montage of ESPN’s 20 years covering the bee; and a moment in which a kid tells the audience the new format is a “win-win for the Bee”—that it took a full 42 minutes to get through the first round of the finals. Without all that shit, it probably would have taken six minutes. But in their quest to Olympify the competition, ESPN added shitloads of filler. This is why a computer knocks you out now, to fit in a segment in which Sam Ponder asks people around Washington to spell the president’s name right. (Ponder noted that only one person she talked to spelled Obama’s name correctly. He was from Japan.)
• And ESPN’s opening sequence to the bee was REALLY fucked up. It had a harsh female voiceover saying, “IN LIFE THERE ARE WINNERS AND THERE ARE LOSERS. YOU CAN EITHER SPELL THE WORD OR YOU CAN’T. IT IS OFTEN SAID THAT THE WORD IS YOUR FRIEND BUT THIS IS A LIE. THE WORD IS HERE TO DEFEAT YOU.” Way to ease the pressure on these kids, ESPN. Assholes. What is wrong with you people?
At the end, the last kid standing was bee veteran Arvind Mahankali, who finally won the thing on “KNAIDEL” (though it was his spelling of “DEHNSTUFE” in an earlier round that really brought the house down). When Arvind was declared the winner, two confetti cannons went off on either side of him and showered him for what seemed like 90 minutes. Arvind barely blinked the whole time, either due to shock (again, they’re still just kids) or because he probably would rather have walked off stage to be with his family than stand there and get blasted with 800 hundred pounds of shredded paper.