Anyone familiar with sports is familiar with ESPN. When you go home after work to catch up on the day’s sports news, you turn on SportsCenter. They’re the biggest name in sports, with airplay in over 200 countries, a viewership demographic that is 90% male and 87% college educated. They’re a juggernaut that dominates the landscape of American sports entertainment and journalism.
They’re also ruining modern professional sports.
ESPN has morphed from a sports network, as it was at its inception in the late ’70s, into this behemoth of a 24-hour sports news organization. They aren’t really a sports channel anymore, so much as they are a news channel with sports pundits that occasionally has sports on in the evening. ESPN, in short, is suffering from the MTV effect, though at least you can still find sports on ESPN. MTV is more of a lost cause than a reunion season of Jersey Shore starring Snooki’s baby. They have become so much about chasing controversy, drama and sports politics that they’ve forgotten to actually pay more attention to the sports themselves and the players involved.
ESPN has become just as hungry for bitter arguments and juicy drama as any of the other big news networks. Shows like First Take and even SportsCenter have taken on a style in the same vein as that of network political pundits. Who watches ESPN to get the equivalent of The O’Reilly Sports Factor? No one, because we get enough yelling over sports at family holidays and the games themselves. At this point, I’m really surprised that someone hasn’t tried to start a major political debate over American sports traditions during an ESPN college football discussion.
Hang on, I’m being told Pat Dollard did this about the National Anthem as buying into “the mythology of the fallen soldier” two weeks ago. The merits and flaws of his argument aside, ESPN has become about politicizing sports, and it’s bad for everyone involved. People start to focus on the issues and rampant speculation off of the field, not the game itself. The value of the sport and the competitions themselves get lost in this weird sea of reactionary stories to big controversies, overseen by people that are really just getting paid to yell crazy things on the air to up the ratings.
ESPN does do a great deal right when they don’t have irritable sports pundits yelling at each other about how much they love or hate LeBron James. College GameDay and the 30 for 30 segments are often masterfully produced and really entertaining. College GameDay has given us Erin Andrews, which should earn it some kind of medal or certificate of appreciation, at least. The 30 for 30 documentary series is a critically acclaimed internationally, with hard-hitting and in-depth looks at sports and sports history. It also inspired an amazing Space Jam parody, which I will use to convince my future children that MJ did, in fact, play a series of basketball games with Bugs Bunny against evil basketball playing monsters from Mars.
In a society so polarized that people cheer for a political party like their own incredibly boring sports franchise, we don’t need more politics to creep into sports. We have televised baseball games for when we want to watch a sport and be bored to tears. ESPN should be covering the big controversies, like concussions in the NFL and pervasive hazing culture within teams, and handling them professionally and objectively. Those issues matter; they impact lives. That is the kind of sports journalism ESPN can stand behind if they want to branch out beyond coverage of the games. They should not be reporting every single rumor as a major development and ignoring the underlying issues when they cover these stories. By focusing more on the celebrity drama and politics surrounding the sports, they minimize the impact of players on the game and the games themselves. They’re the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, after all. Maybe they should spend a little more time on the sports and players themselves and a little less of the TMZ meets Fox News controversy-palooza.