I do have to say that of the few snippets of coverage I see of Sportscenter I see here and there (which I can't help since my brother is a huge baseball fan), they seem to be going easy on Barry Bonds. At least at this point, his use of steroids has taken a back seat to his tainted pursuit of Hammerin' Hank's home run record. I did get to see the pilot of The Bronx is Burning last week, which was okay. Turturro always does a great job.
ESPN: Worldwide Cheerleader?
July 23, 2007 issue - Throughout July, ESPN's award-winning flagship news hour "SportsCenter" is devoting a chunk of every broadcast to a segment called "Who's Now." It's an elimination tournament, purely theoretical, to determine which current athlete is the most "now"—although two weeks into the competition, it's still anyone's guess what exactly "now" means. A panel of experts, including ex-NFL diva Keyshawn Johnson, debate whether, say, the NBA's Dwyane Wade or snowboarder Shaun White is more "now." Viewers vote online, and the winner moves on to face Tiger Woods in the next round. And so on. Everything about the segment is so artificial, from concept to execution, that watching it is like chewing Styrofoam.
Lots of people in the sports world took shots at "Who's Now" last week, including ESPN's own star columnist Bill Simmons. It was just another wound in what turned out be an unexpectedly untriumphant stretch for "the worldwide leader in sports." Monday's Home Run Derby on ESPN, minus slugger Barry Bonds, who declined to participate because he's old, was a bit of a dud. Later that evening, the network's much-hyped miniseries, "The Bronx Is Burning," premiered to lukewarm reviews and luker-warm ratings. And on Wednesday, one of ESPN's brightest nights of the year—the taping of its annual sports awards show, the Espys—was dimmed by the news that longtime "SportsCenter" anchor Dan Patrick, arguably ESPN's most cherished on-air personality, was leaving the network. ESPN still has plenty of big names on the payroll; its TV dominion is secure. But Patrick's departure is a watershed moment, not least because it epitomizes a battle for the soul of ESPN. As an anchor, Patrick struck the perfect balance between wit and gravitas; he had the funniest one-liners and he asked the toughest questions. But in recent years, networkwide, that balance has begun to tip unmistakably toward the kind of athlete-centric idol worship that seems more like the province of Us Weekly than ESPN.
Some of this is inevitable. ESPN's lucrative partnerships with the NFL, the NBA, MLB and NASCAR, among others, have put its news operation, and "SportsCenter" in particular, in a unique bind. "Imagine The New York Times owning half of the Broadway theaters whose plays it reviews. Or imagine CNN paying billions of dollars for exclusive ... rights to cover the War in Iraq," wrote ESPN's own ombudsman, Le Anne Schreiber, in a May 10 Web column titled "At ESPN, Conflict of Interest Is Business as Usual." It has led to the occasional gaffe, like ESPN's decision to cancel its well-regarded drama "Playmakers" after the NFL complained about the show. And many influential sports bloggers, such as The Big Lead and Deadspin, have accused the network of ignoring sports, especially pro hockey, that ESPN doesn't have deals with. Then again, ESPN has ramped up its coverage of ultimate fighting even though the network has no financial stake in it—and does have a stake in its rival, boxing. And while it's true that ESPN's hockey coverage has declined lately, hockey has also declined lately. Is that ESPN's fault, or the NHL's?
What's more troubling is how frequently ESPN's boosterism leads to bad television. Another regular "SportsCenter" segment called "A Day in the Life" (think "ESPN Cribs") recently featured star NFL linebacker Shawne Merriman, who was suspended last year after he flunked a steroid test. "SportsCenter" duly noted the suspension early on, but it only underscored the exercise in image rehabilitation that came next: Merriman eating breakfast, Merriman lifting weights, Merriman volunteering at a soup kitchen. How convenient that ESPN's cameras showed up for that day in his life.
ESPN remains peerless at reporting, and breaking, news—there's a reason so many of us still mainline hour after hour of "SportsCenter." And it has covered the year's biggest story, Bonds's tainted pursuit of Hank Aaron's hallowed home-run record, with a fittingly ambivalent mix of awe and skepticism. But too often, the network seems hellbent on sanctifying athletes, rather than merely covering them, because it's good business for both. (ESPN's overreliance on underqualified ex-jocks to fill its analyst ranks is a grating example.) In a way, the Espys have become an apt metaphor for ESPN. It's a party the network throws for itself and its closest friends. Everyone sits together, news anchors rubbing elbows with All-Stars. It's more business as usual—two crowds that should probably keep their distance, getting a little too cozy instead.