ESPN: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

It is undeniable that ESPN has permanently changed the way sports are consumed in this country. In the past, sports coverage was limited to a section of the newspaper and a five-minute recap of local stories on network television. Someone with more national sports interests would be left in the dark. But thanks to ESPN, sports reporting has leaped wholeheartedly into the 24-hour news cycle. Between ESPN’s many stations, you can find “SportCenter” on at pretty much any time of the day. And when the flagship program isn’t on, one of several sport-specific knockoffs, covering all four professional sports and the college scene, takes its place.

ESPN has also fully embraced the Internet. Every year it seems that ESPN changes its layout and functionality, constantly making use of knew Internet technologies as they become available. Blogs? Check. RSS subscriptions? Check. Video and photography for every game story? Check. The latest trend in journalism is hyper-local sites like AOL’s Patch and Boston.com’s MyTown. ESPN has already designed five city-specific sites, encompassing five of the biggest sports markets in America: Boston, New York, Chicago, Dallas/TX and Los Angeles/California.

For those who want to pursue sports journalism as a career, ESPN offers many employment opportunities and state-of-the-art technology to do it. And despite its size, ESPN still has standards for all writers. There’s no room for Deadspin’s Will Leitch at ESPN. Leitch is a drug-dealer, pushing a poisonous product that he must constantly convince consumers they need in order to keep his product profitable. Were sensationalist sites like Deadspin (or TMZ) to go away, after an initial period of mourning, would anyone miss them? But if ESPN were to go away, every sports fan would feel cut off from the sports world.

This is not to say ESPN does not have some serious problems. ESPN is incredibly management-friendly, even when it says otherwise. It’s very rare that any move by management is criticized. When Mike Shanahan and Donovan McNabb had their dispute, ESPN came down very heavily on McNabb, wondering if he’d be employable after all of this. No criticism whatsoever of a Shanahan-led Redskins team that went 2-6 over the second half of its season.

Very rarely is a trade criticized either. At worst, ESPN analysts will admit the player “isn’t what he used to be.” They’ll then muse on how a return to past form would make the trade seem brilliant in retrospect. But there’s never an analyst who outright says “this was a bad trade.” Occasionally, they’ll say “this player is done,” but even then they won’t criticize the trade, just the player.

Even Bill Simmons, whose popularity allows him a measure of independence from ESPN’s editors, follows this convention.

One of the reasons this is so commonplace is because ESPN loves to employ ex-athletes. And athletes are taught from a young age not to criticize management. Some of this comes from a desire to avoid punishment, some of it comes from a belief that “players play and managers manage,” as Lisa Simpson would say (“do alligators alligate?”).

ESPN’s reliance on ex-athletes is another one of its flaws, much as that gives athletes opportunities after their admittedly short careers end. By pushing athletes on television (not all of whom, by the way, are actually intelligent or well-spoken… Shannon Sharpe), ESPN perpetuates the idea that only athletes truly understand the game. This takes credibility away from actual writers, and probably perpetuates the misogyny that has long-infected the world of sports journalism.

But ESPN’s biggest problem is that too often it lacks teeth. Its ability to cover every team in every sport is undeniable. But what do ESPN writers ever actually say? Take a look at much of ESPN’s program. “Pardon the Interruption. “Around the Horn.” “1st and 10.” “Jim Rome is Burning.” Are any of these shows more than people yelling at each other? Is there any real analysis? Any real research or reporting? Is any of this journalism? Didn’t think so.

ESPN covers the broadest spectrum of sports possible, but in so doing settles for the lowest common denominator of sports journalism. Its writing is crisp and clean, but also white-washed. Yahoo! Sports basketball writer Adrian Wojnarowski once said he loves ESPN, because he knows that station will never do more than what is absolutely necessary to tell the basic story without rocking the boat. This leaves writers like Wojnarowski free to pursue actual scoops, to find the real stories in sports that might mean something in the greater scheme of things.

The worst example of this I’ve ever seen by ESPN was a pre-Super Bowl piece on Hines Ward. It was billed as piece delving into what really drives Ward. But what actually aired was three minutes of cotton candy — light and pretty, but ultimately substance-less. The clip opened with some chaotic shots of Korean drums (he was born in Seoul). Then were some still shots of Ward sitting in a locker room. If you listened to his words, you quickly realized that he was spewing the same tired sports cliches that every professional athlete gives when he gets a dumb question. But ESPN edited the pauses out of the cliches so that they sounded like he was shooting them out rapid-fire. It added some drama, but there was nothing to anything he said.

Ultimately, I felt the clip looked really cool but didn’t teach me a single thing. Just like ESPN.

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