Dec 20 2012
Most sports fans, it’s worth noting, are high-functioning human beings. They can talk about sports without gratuitous lapses into the first-person plural; they don’t get dewy-eyed watching Gatorade commercials; they don’t talk about their fantasy football teams in the goofy-serious and hilariously unselfconscious way that two-year-olds talk about their most recent bathroom experience. Most sports fans, in short, interact with sports the way that adults interact with other entertainments: as a way to make a difficult and often bleak world more enjoyable/deal-withable.
This is maybe the way you use music or books or movies or drugs or alcohol; many sports fans use all of those in some combination, of course, but we add to that mix the narrative inversions and individuated blips of transcendence that define most of your better sports-watching experiences. Sometimes, of course, sports offer nothing but a reflection of our obese, ignorant, mean, thwarted culture—do not watch a Jets game, for instance, unless you want to encounter the equivalent of a bleaker-than-average Ken Loach movie with an especially difficult Swans soundtrack. But for the most part, sports fans are just looking for something human and graceful to entertain and distract them. They—we—watch sports because it’s fun. This is only worth mentioning because of how sharply and depressingly the bellowing sad-zombie mutants that are currently loudest in the sports discourse diverge from their audience, who watch sports because they like them. The “pundits” who shout because they’re paid to do so—because a camera is rolling, or because readers aren’t going to troll themselves—often appear not to care about sports, or even hate them outright. Many of them doubtless do—waxing poetic about steakheaded linebackers for a few decades will do that—but it's not quite as simple as that.
This is not to excuse the most recent anti-stars of the last and most recent disgraceful week in sports-related noise, or the next one. In case you missed it: Rob Parker, an energy-off-the-bench guy on ESPN’s junior varsity Yeah I Said It team, was suspended by the network after going way off message in a conversation with ESPN fixture Stephen A. Smith about Redskins phenom Robert Griffin III. The conversation about race (when “ESPN” and “race” are in the same sentence, you’re already in the Danger Zone) led to Parker questioning whether Griffin was a “cornball brother” or not. If you’ve seen much circa-now ESPN, you know how all this sounded and went, and if it was dumb—and it was very dumb, as in: “To me, that’s very urban and makes you feel like… Wearing braids, you’re a brother. You’re a brother if you’ve got braids on”—it was also dumb in a very recognizable way for the network.
That, minus the race-related real-talking idiocy, is what ESPN sounds like when there isn’t a live sporting event on: men getting pretend-huffy about sport-things they don’t care about; Skip Bayless looking like a stick of unusually peevish turkey jerky; the stridency-based sportswriter game show that is Around The Horn, the average episode of which is like watching a live-action Hungry Hungry Hippos where all the marbles are also Tim Tebow. Parker did a bad job, but his job itself is inherently awful, and probably tougher than it looks. He has to talk and talk and talk about the three or four things ESPN has determined viewers want to hear about, until it’s time for the commercials, and then to come back and do it some more. It’s difficult to imagine anyone—even one of the many people commenting on sports who are more thoughtful than Rob Parker—saying that many words without eventually saying a few of the wrong ones in a row.
But Parker is already forgotten. The San Francisco Chronicle columnist who accused David Stern of ruining Christmas by scheduling basketball games on that day, and implied that it was because Stern is Jewish, barely even registered on the guy-saying-dumb-things radar. The doofus who wrote a frankly racist column last month asserting that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s tattoos make him a less effective leader is out of a job, but only because his website went out of business. ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd, who went into a righteous white-panic fit over Washington Wizards guard John Wall doing a pre-game dance back in 2010, is now one of the network’s biggest stars.
These people all have their own problems, obviously, but it does not absolve them to note that all the incentives of their workplace exacerbate these exact idiocies. There’s no reason why anyone should talk about or listen to other people talking about sports for hours and hours every day. There is not necessarily that much to say about men running and catching balls under the best of circumstances, and necessarily not that much to say in most others. But sports media’s simultaneous demand for HOT TAKES on a harrowingly narrow subject matter—whatever is newest, button-pushingest, Tebow-est—virtually ensures a poor-quality product. The job that Rob Parker and the rest do so poorly is, ultimately, more like being a short-order cook—one tasked with flipping spitting, gristly SEO shitburgers on a sprawling griddle—than being a writer or commentator or thinker, let alone like being a fan. By all means, blame the chefs for the wilted, hair-festooned word salads and inedible turd-steaks they’re sending out of the kitchen. But the menu is awful too.
Previously: The Pelicans' Grief