Having a spell

Most of the National Spelling Bee was on ESPN last week. We should note, since most of the event was on ESPN, that a Missouri girl made the Final Four of what in limited circles might be known as “June Madness.”

ESPN? Is spelling a “sport.” You don’t have to be seven feet tall to be a world champion speller. You don’t have to weigh 300 pounds, throw an spheroid (hey, it’s a spelling contest for crying out loud!) sixty yards or a horsehide 103 miles an hour with a wicked hook at the end, or skate through a bunch of brutes wanting to clean your clock while you try to flick a round piece of rubber past some well-padded knight of the crease to be able to spell “stromuhr,” which 14-year old Anamika Veeramani of North Royalton, Ohio did to take the big trophy and a bunch of other loot.

It might not be sport as most of us think of sport. In fact, we have to confess that we don’t understand how poker or chess is sport either. But it must be recognized that the spelling bee had a tendency to grow on a lot of viewers, especially as they held their breaths with every letter of every word the home state entrant uttered.

And let us recall what ESPN stands for: ENTERTAINMENT and Sports Programming Network. They long ago quit referring to the full name, just as KFC quit calling itself Kentucky Fried Chicken. Initials sometimes come to mean more to the public than words.

But it was words that counted in the Spelling Bee and since all of us use words and a few of us find a certain fascination with them, especially if we never heard of them. So hats off to Missouri’s own Elizabeth Platz, a home-schooled eighth grader from Shelbina. She and two of the other final four contestants missed their words in the 8th round. The winner got her word right then had to sit through a 150-second commercial break on ABC before spelling the championship word. It is that final circumstance that caused some controversy in the event with Missouri’s finalist taking an outspoken role.

Good for her.

Here’s what happened.

ESPN broadcast everything but the championship round. The finals were Friday night on ABC which blocked out two hours for the spell-off among the final ten contestants. But words failed several of the last semifinalists. The last afternoon round began with 19 spellers. Then nine of the first 13 spellers missed. Elizabeth was one of the four to get her word right.

Suddenly the officials of the Bee stopped the round with six spellers untested and announced that the six who had not yet had to spell a word would be considered finalists along with Elizabeth and the three others who had earned their way to the finals by spelling words most of us couldn’t even pronounce.

Television, which by its presence manipulates so many sporting events, had manipulated the Spelling Bee. ABC needed ten finalists, no more and no less, for the two-hour show Friday night.

Somebody asked Elizabeth Platz what she thought about the situation. You ask a Missourian a question, expect candor unless, perhaps, they’re running for public office.

“I would rather have five finalists than five who don’t deserve it. I think it was unfair,” she said.

The adults who were in the hotel ballroom where the bee was held applauded her.

Right on, Elizabeth.

We’ll never know if any of the six who did not get words in that round could have spelled them and could have earned their way to the championship round the way she did. And let’s face it, even those who didn’t get a word in that last semifinal round had gotten to that round by spelling words that will intimidate a lot of P:hDs.
But Elizabeth DID spell her word. And she made it all the way to the Final Four of June Madness and she came within one letter of making the championship round a two-person head to head competition. Congratulations to

Elizabeth, 13 years old and unafraid of words–to spell them or to speak them.

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