Inside the Church of Sports
A new history of ESPN shows how one religion got its start.
We do get an outside opinion on this from Jimmy Kimmel, the late-night comic and host of the ESPYs, the ESPN awards show. (Kimmel was never invited back because his remarks were not "celebratory" enough.) In the book, Kimmel says, "There's a lot of hypocrisy. … You've got a lot of guys on the field who are flat-out criminals, and they're wearing breast cancer scarves, so it makes it all okay. … [M]ost of [the hosts] work for one of the major sports providers—ESPN or some network that relies on a team to fill their programming time, so everyone is handcuffed and no one says anything about this stuff."
Talk about conflicts of interest. Most everybody in the biz has taken ESPN money at one time or another, including me. Over the past 20 years, I have worked on and off as a writer, a regular guest on Classic Sports Reporters, and a recurring consultant and on-air gasbag for SportsCentury and other shows. I was always struck by the professionalism of the technicians and the wonkish intensity of the writers and producers. In Bristol, I sometimes felt as though as I were in meetings (ESPN loves meetings) with the sports equivalent of Vatican seminarians. These were serious fans who had had to pass a sports quiz (involving current players as well as historical ones) to be hired as entry-level production assistants. For them, the annual NFL draft loomed larger than any political nominating convention. Priests and nuns of sports! Even the executives were in fantasy leagues. The bishops believe! And yet, as Howard Cosell would say, there is a horizon above the top of the outfield fence.
Thus, when it comes to setting ESPN in its larger culture—the sacred within the profane, if we stick with my church analogy—the book leaves me a little frustrated. This may be unfair, since it doesn't seem to be what Miller and Shales set out to do. There's very little in the book about how ESPN's feel-good highlight culture has affected America's perception of celebrity athletes, the corrupt world of college sports, or the increasing exploitation of young athletes, much less the presentation of non-sports news elsewhere—all aspects of the network's impact. And do the leaders of the worldwide leader even think about such issues? After the Playmakers affair, the most signifying example of ESPN's confusion over its corporate identity and direction would seem to be the ill-fated hiring of Rush Limbaugh for the Sunday NFL Countdown show in 2003.
Thinking only of ratings and the bottom line would be understandable (isn't making money a form of worshipping competition?) but it's hard to imagine why ESPN thought it could control one of the country's leading political opinionators. Limbaugh, being Limbaugh, declared Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb overrated by a liberal media that wanted a black quarterback to succeed. Sure, Limbaugh was attacking a favorite political target, but he was also offering an arguable football point of view. No one on air with Limbaugh challenged him, although some complained afterward. There was media criticism, which ESPN hates. Internally, many who had been against Limbaugh's hiring (for careerist more than political reasons) rose up to demand that he be cut from their roster.
The man credited both with signing Limbaugh and disposing of him three weeks later was one of the most fascinating characters in the book. John A. Walsh, a highly respected magazine editor, has for almost a quarter-century been the soul of ESPN's editorial machine. Considered "controlling" and "Machiavellian" by others quoted in the book, as well as a genius (all apt labels, I think), Walsh has given the network a patina of journalistic authenticity, as well as moralistic authority. Walsh always preached fairness. I think of him as a cardinal, a defender of the faith. But does that mean, like real church officials, he is protecting the holy coffers at the cost of its spiritual core? Think of Playmakers, Roethlisberger, and the handling of Limbaugh as part of a pattern of faithlessness.
I wanted to know more about this kind of confused behavior. Was it symbolic of an organization that is not always sure of what it is and what it wants to be? How does ESPN, on the one hand, rationalize selling an hour of airtime to LeBron James to announce his new team, while at the same filling other parts of its sacred schedule with the exemplary 30 for 30 documentary series? Why does it relentlessly pump up ballplayers (remember the Barry Bonds reality show) while keeping a lid on most of its own stars (like Keith Olbermann, who got ditched when it started to look like he might overshadow the network)? Or maybe the dichotomy is dogma. Don't all churches have to co-exist with ruling states and beware of creating a dissident man for all seasons?
The Church of Sports will survive. It has allowed its current superstar, Bill Simmons, to create an empire within the empire—a website with room for his pal Malcolm Gladwell that will include pop culture pieces and his own fan-centric, navel-gazing sportswriting. It will promote his shows, podcasts, books. Meanwhile, Simmons flaunts his persona as a kind of liberation theologian within an orthodox church. He aligns himself with Olbermann and Tony Kornheiser as being "very impassioned almost to a fault, and we can't just believe ESPN works this way, and why can't it work better."His new site, Grantland.com, may end up as just another chapter of the ESPN scripture. Or maybe, and God knows which is the true path of righteousness, it will become the first chapter in a New Testament, a breakaway church of its own.