Inside the Church of Sports
A new history of ESPN shows how one religion got its start.
Sports make up a religious strand of American life, and their church is the Entertainment Sports Programming Network. In its 32 years of existence, ESPN has expanded from a cheesy tent-show evangelizing Australian-rules football and girls softball to being "the worldwide leader in sports"—a media empire with a presence in television, books, magazines, and the Web.
As have all great houses of worship, ESPN achieved this expansion with ritual (cheerleading sportscasting) and artwork (mesmerizing highlight reels) that can be brilliant or silly but keep followers devoted to the altar of games. Games are good. In a media world of political shysters, screaming suck-ups and corporate greed-heads, ESPN is a temple of true believers in the sanctity of athletic competition. From its headquarters in Bristol, Conn., which is famously nowhere, SportsWorld is worshipped as a patch of masculine meritocracy to be analyzed to the last angel on a decimal point. If there is life outside the white lines it is rarely visible at ESPN. This is its strength or its weakness, depending on whether you want your church to be a sanctuary from the real world or a meaningful way to engage it.
Now ESPN has an Old Testament, a 763-page oral history by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales called Those Guys Have All the Fun. As it turns out, the guys (and particularly the girls) have had less fun than one might imagine. Since ESPN first came on air in 1979, its staff—young, isolated, working long hours in close quarters—has been riven by backstabbing and sexual harassment. But the book's subtitle, "Inside the World of ESPN," is accurate. If you crave all the biblical begats, this is the text, even if you lose your way among the interchangeably nasty and/or alcoholic founding executives and engineers, and the ambitious and egomaniacal anchors and producers. Like ESPN's signature show, SportsCenter, the book is a numbing series of dunks, dings, bombs, and body checks. But many of the highlights are choice.
My own favorite concerns one of ESPN's boldest failed ventures, the scripted drama series Playmakers, about the lives and loves of pro football players and their wives and lovers, which dealt with substance abuse, homosexuality, and the rigors of the game. It was a terrific show, smart, compelling, filled with ripped-from-the-headlines reality. A young executive named Mark Shapiro, now gone, pushed it as a way to broaden the network's appeal beyond "the hard x's and o's crowd." Women watched it. Playmakers was a hit.
It was canceled after one season because it made the NFL unhappy. It was bad for the brand.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue recounts in the book how he called Michael Eisner, the CEO of Disney, ESPN's parent company, and said: "People want to watch sports when they can respect the athletes. This program leads them to have a view of the athletes that leads them to disrespect the athletes."
Miller and Shales are respected journalists—Shales won a Pulizer Prize as the Washington Post's TV critic and together they wrote a engrossing oral history of Saturday Night Live—so one can feel disappointed that they didn't have more to say between the often contradictory sound bites. They might have pointed to the Playmakers episode as an example of ESPN's troubled relationship with the sports it supposedly covers journalistically while paying them enormous sums to appear on its stage. The phrase "conflict of interest" seems flabby.
Nor do they pause to connect the fictional Playmakers with the real ones. For example, when Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, was accused of sexual misconduct in a bar, why was the worldwide leader in sports just about the last major media outlet to cover the story? Did ESPN's lack of response reflect its own sad record of female employees being victimized by their frat-ish male colleagues? Or was the network once again obeying Tagliabue's demand that it "respect the athletes"?
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.