Ethics Musings Sparked By The Passing Of Ken Beatrice, D.C. Sports Talk Legend


If you did not live in the D.C. area in the Eighties, you probably never heard of Ken Beatrice, who just died in a hospice at the age of 72. There was a time when Beatrice was the radio sports authority in pro football crazy Washington D.C., and star of the most popular and talked about call-in show of any kind on the local radio. He deserved his popularity, for Beatrice was smart, hard-working, knowledgeable, professional, and nice. His career, its rise and fall, was also a hard ethics lesson, for anyone paying attention, on why it is that good people do unethical things that hurt themselves more than anyone else.

Beatrice’s acclaim arose out of his astounding knowledge of football at all levels, from the pros to high school. I’ve never cared about football, but I listened to Ken’s show just because he was amazing. From his Washington Post obituary:

“His knowledge of pro football players, current and potential, was nonpareil. Call in to ask about the third-string quarterback at a second-tier college, and Mr. Beatrice could tell you the player’s height, weight and 40-yard dash time.He was so attentive to the game, a sportscaster once told The Washington Post, that he was able to recite a team’s depth chart off the top of his head, naming both the starters and the second- and third-stringers who would eventually replace them.”

This doesn’t even do Beatrice justice: you had to hear him. It was like a Las Vegas magic act. A caller would say, “I graduated from Madison High in Rexburg, Idaho, and I hear they have a running back on the football team that may have pro potential…I can’t think of his name..”

“Oh, you’re talking about Odell Brittain!” Ken would break in. “Big junior, weighs about 240, 6’3″, still growing. We have him running the forty at 4.37, which is terrific for a halfback, and he can throw too: holds the Idaho Pop Warner record for touchdown passes by a left-hander when he played quarterback as a kid. Good student, makes model planes; has a strong family background, a slight lisp. We have him rated as an A prospect for the Big Ten–darn right he may be an NFL prospect when he fills out! He is seriously allergic to bees, though: his team keeps a syringe full of epinephrine handy for him, just in case.”

Remember, this was before the internet. A lot of people, including me, thought Beatrice was sometimes making this stuff up—who could check him?—and sometimes he may have been. In 1981, Tony Kornheiser, then with The Washington Post, now an ESPN  sports blather star—did a feature on Beatrice that checked up on some of his commentary and found examples of inaccurate information. Kornheiser also revealed that Beatrice had inflated or fabricated some of his career details and credentials. Contrary to his public claims,  Beatrice had not played on the varsity football team at Boston College; he did not have a PhD; he had not been instrumental in an effort by the Patriots (then called the Boston Patriots), to draft future Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton in the early 1960s. Other journalists took issue with Beatrice’s routine use of the word “we” when evaluating football players over the air, as he strongly implied, and sometimes stated, that he was the head of some kind of scouting bureau. There was no scouting bureau. There was just Ken.

While all of this was swirling around the media before the Post exposé was even published, Beatrice suddenly announced he was taking a leave of absence to spend time with his family and ponder his future. He came back, but his influence and popularity were never the same.

Why did someone as a good at what he did as Beatrice—he really was the best sports radio host I have ever heard, and I say this despite the fact that in Washington Ken seldom talked about sports I follow–feel he had to fake so much? Why does someone who is legitimately 75% better than his competition feel that it is worth lying to be seen as 90% better? It’s an important question, because we see this so often, in so many fields, and maybe in ourselves.

I don’t know enough about Beatrice to venture into psychology, but obviously he was sufficiently insecure that he didn’t think his real abilities and talents were enough…and they were. Why pretend to have a PhD? Who cares if he played college football? Ken cared, apparently. So he gambled with his listener’s trust to make himself feel like more of an expert, and lost. This is a Brian Williams, in some ways, except that within his niche, Ken Beatrice was far more of a legitimate stand-out than Brian Williams ever was. Nobody was close to Beatrice. He was incredibly well-informed, without faking or cheating. Perhaps he felt he had to live up to a reputation that was over-hyped by others. “He knows everything,” his fans said, and its impossible to know everything. So Ken started faking it, perhaps so he could be as amazing as everyone said he was, because any less would feel like a failure to him.

Some of the forces pulling Beatrice to the dark side were cultural: in show business, in radio, on TV, the cultures are less interested in being ethical than being successful. As long as fakery and exaggerations work, the “everybody does it” and many other rationalizations rule supreme. At Beatrice’s peak, some of his more transparent fakery was admired as “showmanship.”

“After every Redskins game he would grade every single player. So, he would grade Theisman, or Riggs, Art Monk. But he started grading every player. So he would grade the left tackle, the center, the place kicker, the middle linebacker; he would grade every single player,” said Jason ‘Lurch’ Bishop of the Sports Junkies on 106.7 (D.C.). … “It was funny because there’s no way. This was way before DVR and all the highlight shows. He couldn’t sit there and possibly grade every single player. It was funny after a while, especially like, my uncles and my grandfather would always say he’s blowing smoke, because there’s no way he’s watching all these guys for 60 minutes. But that was Ken for you. Ken liked to sell it. He was a salesman; he was awesome. I loved him.”

This is how celebrities, journalists and politicians let their supporters corrupt them. Their fans “love” such deceptions, because they can minimize them and shrug them off as trivial, and the objects of their affections receive the message that lying is just part of a game. That message almost inevitably destroys them, because somewhere lurking in the not-too-distant future is a lie too far, and that lie ends trust forever.

That is what ultimately happened to Ken Beatrice.

4 thoughts on “Ethics Musings Sparked By The Passing Of Ken Beatrice, D.C. Sports Talk Legend

  1. I can understand the fascination with a personality like that. They had to be fast and unfazeable, and make you believe they knew the answers to all the sixty-four thousand dollar questions. Like millions of others, I disengaged from that particular form of “willing suspension of disbelief” following the quiz show and payola scandals of the fifties.

    And I was still sceptical of know-it-alls when I fell into trustfulness with the Magliozzi Brothers. I hadn’t fiddled with auto innards since my first beloved ’50 Chevy, but I became addicted to Car Talk and never doubted they could know better than the manufacturers and every other mechanic in the world. I knew they knew everything the first time I heard them say they were wrong about something (and I think Car Talk is still the only program that gave a portion of their program over to finding out how wrong they were). Without Tom and Ray, NPR might never have learned to risk having their biases challenged by guests such as Jack Marshall.

  2. Jack, I listened to Beatrice, too, for the same reasons you did, during my DC years. But I never knew anything about his downfall until now. I trusted him. But then, I trusted, then verified, insofar as observing players he talked about. I can’t remember how much of the time I was in agreement with him versus disagreement. But I probably agreed with him much of the time, enough to tune-out all the other radio yackers about sports.

    There was a guy in L.A. who I listened to for years before living in DC – Ross Porter – who seemed to have a similar steel trap mind for details, even trivia. I am sad at Beatrice’s earthly silence, but now, I want to go stalking Porter.

  3. Interesting phenomenon. I guess I first became interested in it upon reading “Lord Jim” in high school. My current theory is that we’re not all courageous when faced with what we perceive to be an existential threat. In many situations, we panic. Jim panicked. This guy panicked. I have as well.

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