Can’t Spell ‘Pretentious’ Without E-S-P-N

We have reached another period of sports doldrums. With most sports now out of season and the MLB All-Star break leaving a huge crater in the middle of the calendar, inventive souls are inspired to try to fill the gap with something shiny and novel to keep our minds off the wretchedness of day to day existence.

And then there’s ESPN. I would never accuse them of being inventive, but they have taken their own stab at the filling in the gap thing. They call their efffort the ESPYS, and apparently a lot of people are inclined to watch the program.

Personally, I’d rather just stare at a blank wall.

The DFR: MediaNo, I did not watch this week’s ESPYS broadcast. Indeed, I’ve never watched the ESPYS, not even once for a few minutes, and I find my life has not suffered from the lack.

If you are one of the world’s few fortunate souls who have no idea what the ESPYS might be: it’s an awards ceremony, like the Oscars or Emmys, except it’s for sports. Awards in various arbitrary categories are handed out, generally to the brightest lights from the past sports year. ESPN.com’s article “Five reasons you need to watch the ESPYS” gasped “EVERY SPORTS STAR EVER IN ATTENDANCE!” as a selling point. (Note: that’s actually an ESPNW article, which may explain the slant, but it was featured on the parent site.)


Terraforming the sports landscape … is perilously close to picking the winners and losers before the games are even played.


I can only imagine how grateful you are to hear that athletes, of all people, will finally get some attention in this world. Lord knows they have long been forced to toil in painful obscurity as they’ve accomplished their competitive goals.

But the thing about the ESPYS is, is not really about the athletes, despite what the hype machine may claim. The ESPYS broadcast is itself an award–an award that the Connecticut Clown College bestows upon itself.

Each year’s ESPYS broadcast is really an orgy of self-congratulation during which the so-called “Worldwide Leader” spends a night tearing its collective rotator cuff through vigorously patting itself on the back. Handing out statuettes to various and sundry athletes is simply sucking up on a grand scale, the kind of toadying favored by the unctuous and unaccomplished so that they may bask in a bit of reflected glory. The question is, what does ESPN have to be so self-satisfied about?

The answer can be found, as subtext, in the very same article cited above. The first two of ESPN’s five reasons that you must watch the ESPYS are Caitlyn Jenner and Joel McHale. Both have tangential connections to sports (McHale played football at the University of Washington; Jenner, of course, was famously an Olympic decathlete 39 years ago), but these days both are substantially better known for their roles in the entertainment industry. That Jenner is number one on that list indicates how ESPN views the ESPYS broadcast: as a merger of entertainment and sports–with the E in the network’s name holding the primary position.

This matches ESPN’s apparent mission of the last twenty or so years: make it all about the entertainment and less about the competition. Consider the glut of “Top 10” lists growing all over the network’s programming like mold on month-old bread. Many of the acts featured in SportsCenter’s “Top 10” are indeed eye-catching plays–but for the losing side. What does it say about a sports program that gives prominence to isolated individual plays that have little to do with the actual outcome of the contest? It says the agenda is all about something other than competition to determine who is truly the best.

You may ask, what’s wrong with that? It’s just one network’s way of presenting the games we watch, right?

Not really. ESPN’s approach does not simply cherry pick some highlights over others, out of context of the games in which they happened; the network’s editorial decisions have, over time, reshaped not only how the games are watched, but how the games are actually played.

Consider the baseball’s steroids era. After the lost ’94 season, baseball was desperate to get back into the public’s good graces. The quickest and easiest–but not necessarily best or most harmless–way to return to grace was through the hype-making machinery of the highlight shows, SportsCenter most prominent among those. (This was back in the day when SportsCenter actually bothered with showing real highlights, instead of a smattering of clips between endless blather.) In baseball, no play is more highlight friendly than a booming home run. MLB’s tolerance, if not actual encouragement, of PED use was a product of a semi-conscious awareness that all those home runs helped keep the game prominent on ESPN’s shows. Today, we’re still dealing with the consequences of that decision making.

Think, too, of basketball and today’s dearth of legitimate centers. Has the world stopped producing athletic seven-footers? Of course not. The Association now lacks traditional post players because nobody plays the game that way, in part because that’s not the kind of play that gets highlight attention on the 10pm SportsCenter. That program–and its imitators on other networks–prefers clips of monster dunks (especially breakaways and fast break posterizations), or shooters draining long threes, over some tall guy hitting a turnaround 15-footer. That’s why new Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry wants Anthony Davis–maybe the game’s one legitimate star center–shooting more three-pointers next season.

In both cases, ESPN’s editorial decisions about how the games are covered changed the way the game is played. It’s hard to say whether the changes to the NBA game are good or bad; baseball’s partisans, particularly Hall of Fame voters, don’t seem too happy with the home run binge now.

ESPN’s influence doesn’t stop there; it is so broad reaching that it has shaped who is and isn’t a major player in the sports landscape. Think about The Worldwide Leader’s house team, college division: UConn. The Huskies have achieved a lot of success in major college athletics, conspicuously after 1979–when ESPN was founded down the road in Bristol. Before then, UConn’s athletic achievements were modest: a soccer national championship, then a few more titles in soccer and field hockey during the early ’80s. It took the Huskies a few years to really get rolling, but since the damn broke in the 1990s, a lot has happened: thirteen national championships in basketball between the women and men (plus a couple more soccer and hockey titles). Do you really believe that having ESPN just down the road from Storrs didn’t help lift UConn’s hoops program into the big time?

Conversely, DePaul was once a basketball powerhouse. Nowadays, their program is sputtering: eight seasons removed from a winning record, only two NCAA Tournament appearances in twenty-three years. Do you think that would be the reality if ESPN had been founded in some suburb of Chicago–say Aurora, or Rockford, or Joliet–instead of Bristol, CT?

And the less said about ESPN’s influence on another house team–the rise of the Boston Red Sox to Evil Empire status–the better.

That’s why ESPN is feeling so proud of itself. The network doesn’t just cover sports, it actually helps to create the sports landscape, particularly to its own liking.

But to their liking is not necessarily to everyone’s liking. Terraforming the sports landscape in this way is perilously close to picking the winners and losers before the games are even played. Inevitably with such concentrated influence, few will benefit and many will wind up on the outside looking in. Or, more accurately, perhaps, most will wind up as bit players, as extras in the background of the winners’ celebrations–an event that probably looks a lot like an ESPYS broadcast.

So pardon me if I chose to be somewhere else on the night after the All-Star Game. None of us should want to be a bit player in someone else’s rigged game; nor should we passively consume such a showcase, whomever Hollywood sends there to glitz it up.

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