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07/10/2006: "ESPN’s SEVEN DEADLY SINS"

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Written by Robert Bonnette
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ESPN is clearly not what it once was when it comes to being a quality network. Once the gold standard for sports television journalism, it has now become a mockery of itself for a number of reasons. While we could probably make a list of twenty or more things that are wrong with the network today, there are seven that really stand out to me. Here they are, ESPN’s seven deadly sins, the infractions that make it more like MTV than a sports network.

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The Bloated Sportscenter Broadcast

Sportscenter used to be year round appointment viewing for me, and now I almost never watch it. It used to be a tight thirty minute roundup of everything that happened that day, complete with highlights, scores, everything you needed. The sixty minute Sunday edition was actually something special and was entirely necessary during the fall when you have a lot of overlap between the all the major sports. They managed to get everything important covered in just thirty minutes during the week, and they did it well. And while they sometimes had to just give you the score of a game with no highlights, it usually was of a game that had little significance in the standings and no singular moments that demanded a portion of the available broadcast time. Unfortunately, the day where we got everything we needed has long since passed.

Now we get an hour of Sportscenter during the week and ninety minutes on Sunday, puffed with filler segments like Hearsay, the Budweiser Hotseat, and other such foolishness where the anchors interview actors and actresses or play trivia games with professional athletes. We get scripted fake arguments that resemble segments from Crossfire or Hardball, where opposing talking points are recited to give the impression that a debate is happening on the sports issues of the day. The five minute features that used to reserved for the Sunday broadcast or special reports are now jammed down our throats with a redundancy that would make MTV proud. Do we really need to see that same five minute montage on how corrupt the University of Georgia basketball team was under Jim Harrick again?

It’s almost impossible to sit through an entire Sportscenter broadcast now; if you want to catch the highlights of your favorite team you’re better off tuning into ESPNNEWS or your own local news. Otherwise, you’d better be ready to sit through several segments of talking heads yapping at each other about everything except the score of the game last night.

ESPN Original Entertainment

And just what is a sports network doing with original programming, other than sporting events themselves? Your guess is as good as mine. Over the past few years we’ve been subjected to all kinds of fare from ESPN, from scripted dramas to made for TV movies to talk shows to awards shows to game shows. Now some of these offerings are quite good; Pardon the Interruption rarely disappoints (as long as Wilbon and Kornheiser are there; it tends to suck when they have guest hosts) and a few of their movies have been pretty good. But was there any real need to show us an embellished movie version of the best seller Season on the Brink? Or such drivel as Mohr Sports, a bad talk show that ran for about a month featuring a standup comedian as the host? And how about Around the Horn? Give me a break. Four sportswriters attempting to be funny and sarcastic as they talk about the subjects they write on does not make for meaning television programming. Neither does Stump the Schwab, where contestants try to outdo some self appointed know it all in a sports-themed game of trivia pursuit.

No discussion of this matter can happen without mentioning Playmakers, the short-lived drama series about a fictional football team. Despite getting excellent ratings in its timeslot, more than double those of what had been there before, Playmakers was cancelled after a dozen or so episodes. Why, you ask? Well the NFL, which broadcasts games on ESPN, had a big problem with a series about professional football set in an NFL-type league where many of the players dealt with issues like drug use, spousal abuse, infidelity, and entourages that included murder suspects. The NFL slapped them around a little, and Playmakers was gone. The funniest thing was that nearly every controversial storyline that took place actually happened in real life, yet the NFL’s beef with it was that it was supposedly not a realistic portrayal of NFL players. And while I and many others who actually came to enjoy the show were upset, ESPN waved the white flag of surrender without any fight and all when it cancelled the show. Was I the only one who thought that if you create a television show based on the exploits of real people, many of which are downright despicable, that one day the real people might get angry? And when those real people are providing you with product to sell (NFL games) that makes you billions of dollars, they just might give you an ultimatum to remove said television show? Hey maybe I wasn’t, but obviously someone in the ESPN boardroom thought it was a good idea.

The ESPY Awards

Talk about a complete waste of time. You get a bunch of pro athletes together, get a few entertainers to help hand out awards and sing a few songs, and then get an athlete or entertainer to host the show. And of course, you hand out awards and give away outrageous gift bags, which are the real reason that you can get so many people to actually show up for this thing. Now I know that almost everyone has awards show nowadays, but is this one really necessary? First of all, does anyone care who wins the awards? No one remembers who got the award in each category even five minutes later. Let’s not forget that the winner of Best Team already won the championship in their respective sport a few weeks or months ago; is a freaking ESPY award going to trump that? Gee, I bet Dwyane Wade will sit his ESPY, should he win one, right next to that NBA Finals MVP award trophy he picked up last month. Maybe he’ll add ESPY award winner on his bio next to NBA Champion in 2006. I doubt it.

What really is the point of the show? Rewarding people who’ve already earned much greater prizes? That makes a lot of sense. Of course the endless hype and advertising for the show would lead you to believe that it’s must see television. The only people who get into any kind of arguments about who won and should have won are the ESPN radio personalities, who of course are being ordered by management to talk about it. The show is basically three hours of self congratulation, where they get to parade around a bunch of famous people in an attempt to show everybody how cool they are because all these famous people showed up for their show. Of course, a lot of celebrities will show up almost anywhere that gives them free stuff and gives them an opportunity to look beautiful on a red carpet. If you really want to know just how relevant this awards show is, all you have to do is look at when it’s held: in the middle of the summer, when there’s nothing else to watch on television and nothing else for most of the guests to do. Out of all of you that actually tune in and watch, how many of you would do so if it were in October and not July? That’s what I thought.

Bonds on Bonds

This show was pitched to us a documentary of sorts that was supposed to give us a real look at the life, on and off the field, of Barry Bonds. We would get to see up close and personal what it was like to be Barry Bonds: the workouts, the games, and the media crunch. Sounds good, huh? After all, who doesn’t want to see and hear candid, on the spot reactions from Barry, especially as he faces the most scrutiny of his long career? Well, there was only one problem. Apparently, Bonds and his people had a great deal of editorial control over the footage that was collected. Which meant that we got to see what Bonds wanted us to see, and anything that he felt didn’t portray him properly was left on the cutting room floor. The audience seemed to figure this out pretty quickly, and tuned out pretty fast.

Needless to say, the network took a big hit from a lot of other media outlets for airing this nonsense. The show was spoken of as if it was propaganda distributed by Bonds with the blessing of ESPN, and that wasn’t far from the truth. It was just a bad idea for any network that claims to do any kind of journalism. When you read a newspaper “on the road with..” piece or a network news feature of the same ilk, you go into it with some degree of trust that the subject didn’t edit the footage to their liking. How can any critical commentary of Bonds on your network be taken seriously when you show programming that basically serves as an infomercial for how great a player and a guy Bonds is? That would be like BET airing rap videos during one hour (or in their case, twelve hours) and then trying to talk objectively about the artists who appear in them. They don’t even bother to try, and neither should you.

All Wie, all the time

Everybody knows Michelle Wie is the biggest name in women’s golf, but the way ESPN covers her is ridiculous and a slap in the face to all the other women on tour. If you were to judge her by the amount of screen time she gets, you’d think she’d won every event she’s ever played in. And you would be dead wrong. The fact of the matter is that she has won zero events of any kind. That’s right, the darling of women’s golf (according to ESPN anyway), has won as many professional golf events as you and I have. This past weekend she played in the Women’s Match Play Championship event, and got several Sportscenter highlights and some interview time while the woman who actually won the event got nothing. Now I understand that Wie is the most interesting player on tour, so she will get a lot of coverage even if she finishes in last place. But how can you talk about the event, show and interview an also-ran, but then completely diss the winner? And please don’t tell me that “well, they show everything Tiger does even if he’s in last place, too.” Tiger has won several events, and finished near the top of countless others. He earned the attention he gets; there’s a difference.

The reasons for the degree of coverage that Wie gets are that she hits the ball as far as a lot of male golfers, and that she intends to play on the Men’s tour one day. Right now she’s more a circus act than anything else. Come see the 16 year old girl hit the ball a long way! Tell your friends! What you may not know is that there are other women playing professionally that hit the ball almost as far Wie does, so in essence she’s really not doing anything as astounding as we are being led to believe. Making a mountain out of a molehill when it comes to what she’s actually accomplished is not the only offense here, though. We’ve been told by more than one ESPN Radio host that she has nothing left to prove to anyone based on what she’s done at age 16. That’s hogwash. How can someone who has never won one event not have anything to prove? I understand she’s not a full time professional yet, but give me a break. No, she doesn’t really have to win anything for a few more years, but she shouldn’t be spoken of as if she’s some kind of champion until she actually collects a trophy or two. And please spare us the “she’s going to win a lot of tournaments over her career” talk; no one has any idea how much she’s going to win. Does she have the ability to win a lot? Sure. But let’s not forget that at one point Anna Kournikova was once ranked in the top fifteen in the world and made a few deep tournament runs, and we saw how things played out for her in the end.

The New Sports

Haven’t you heard? There are a whole new crop of sports that have sprung up over the last few years. Poker, Blackjack, Spelling Bees, Competitive Eating and Dominoes have finally broken through and claimed their rightful place in the sporting world. Yes, that’s right, Dominoes is now a sport. Well, at least in the eyes of ESPN it is. For reasons unknown to us, or maybe because they have five channels to fill with twenty four hours of programming (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPNNEWS, and ESPNU), we are now subjected to “sports” like the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, the National Spelling Bee, and the World Series of Poker. Now I have nothing against these contests (accept for the competitive eating, which is downright gross), but do they really belong in the same conversation as football, basketball, or even beach volleyball? OK, I understand airing this stuff at 2:00 am on Wednesday, but in prime time?

The funny thing is that they used to show things like this back in the eighties, but they had an excuse then: they literally had little to no actual sports programming. Now they have television rights to almost every form of athletic competition known to man, so why on Earth do they resort to this? Is the IOC about to add these events to next Olympics? If so, I can’t wait to see Kobayahsi get his gold medal for the Hot Dog Eating Competition. But until that day comes, these things should not be on any network that wants to be taken seriously. At the rate they’re going we can expect the Madden Bowl to get a sixty minute timeslot soon, or Civil War reenactments. The reason they resort to this type of thing is what I said before, that they have all this time and nothing to fill it. If they kept the roster of channels down to one or two, then we wouldn’t have this problem. You could fit every meaningful game that they have rights for onto either the flagship channel, and have ESPN2 available for nights where you have baseball and basketball games to show, or baseball and football, or whatever. Instead, we get five channels and competitive eating.

To Much Jock Sniffing

This is the worst infraction they commit. It seems that in every major sport there are at least one or two people that the network absolutely adores, to the point of giving them a pass no matter what they do. Brett Favre can throw almost thirty interceptions in one season, and single handedly throw away playoff games in others, yet the next negative report you see or hear about him will be the first. Coach K can drop F-bombs all over the sideline during televised games and still get treated as if he’s a saint. Lebron James can commit traveling violations and obvious fouls with nary a word spoken by the broadcast commentators. The list goes on and on. If you’re a good player, and you show them enough love, ESPN will sing your praises nonstop and find some way to rationalize every transgression you commit. Look at the 1998 baseball season; both Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa had physiques that screamed ‘artificial enhancement’, yet we never heard anything in the way of honest suspicion that they may have been taking anything. This year Bonds looked like he was going to be a big target….until Bonds on Bonds premiered, and then the criticism suddenly decreased.

The problem with this is that you’re supposed to be as objective as possible when you cover these individuals. When you’re constantly sucking up to them and acting like you’re ready to break out a pen and pad for an autograph, it’s hard to be taken seriously by your viewers. Does anyone really look to ESPN when they want to hear an honest assessment of Favre, or Tom Brady, or Duke basketball? I doubt it. The network only has itself to blame; by getting in bed with the leagues it covers and many of the athletes who play in them, they’ve totally shredded whatever credibility they once had. They may as well start having their own version of Access Hollywood so they can suck up the right way, instead of trying to pretend that they don’t.

Well, there’s the list. There are a few others that almost made the cut, like exploiting high school kids, and putting darn near anyone who writes for a major newspaper on television in an effort to make their own reporting look and sound more official, and I’ll get to those sometime in the future. But for now, think about these while you’re enduring another night of ESPN’s brand of sports journalism.