Rob Parker should not be fired from ESPN for doing exactly what the producers of First Take hired him to do. With his mid-morning debate-team cohorts Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless, Parker has become nothing more than a sports-talk carnival barker: a sports personification of Steve Martin's character Navin Johnson, working the Midway in the '70s classic The Jerk. (With it seems, by recent events on First Take, just as much awkward and inappropriate racial undertone.)
"Take a chance and win some crap. Step right up!"
Step right up, folks, because that's what First Take is: crap. Every day, ESPN spoon-feeds its audience the lowest common denominator any sports fan can find on TV. As Navin would suggest, it's a profit deal for ESPN, minimizing rational discussion for sensationalism that only serves to get people talking and tuning in for more.
Parker has been suspended by ESPN for essentially questioning if Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is black enough. Parker's suspension by the Worldwide Leader is for an indefinite amount of time, pending further investigation. How long should that investigation take, ESPN? My best guess is no more than 30 seconds, just enough time to rewind the DVR to listen to what he said one more time.
It shouldn't even take that long. If you haven't seen what Parker said about RGIII, take a look, via The Washington Post's DC Sports Bog:
"[M]y question, which is just a straight honest question. Is he a brother, or is he a cornball brother?”
What does that mean, Parker was asked.
“Well, [that] he’s black, he kind of does his thing, but he’s not really down with the cause, he’s not one of us,” Parker explained. “He’s kind of black, but he’s not really the guy you’d really want to hang out with, because he’s off to do something else.”
Why is that your question, Parker was asked.
“Well, because I want to find out about him,” Parker said. “I don’t know, because I keep hearing these things. We all know he has a white fiancée. There was all this talk about he’s a Republican, which, there’s no information [about that] at all. I’m just trying to dig deeper as to why he has an issue. Because we did find out with Tiger Woods, Tiger Woods was like I’ve got black skin but don’t call me black. So people got to wondering about Tiger Woods early on.”
This was part of a discussion on a national television program. Per Dan Steinberg at The Washington Post, Bayless reminded Parker about RGIII's braids, in an effort to perhaps justify the quarterback's blackness.
This actually happened. It went on long enough for Stephen A. Smith to step in as the voice of reason. The voice of reason! Folks, when Stephen A. is the one telling you to pump the brakes, you've already fallen off the cliff.
The thing is, most people don’t actually watch First Take for anything other than the car wreck, usually directed by Bayless race-baiting and sensationalizing to the point of drawing ire from the Internet watchdogs. When media writers talk about Bayless, he did his job that day, because more people will be tuned in the next day for his apology, clarification or—most likely—continued defense of his original argument. People think Bayless doesn't even believe what he says, a trick he's undoubtedly shared with his fellow panelists.
I mean, please, one has to wonder if Parker really meant what he said, or if he was just playing a role on television. Whatever the motivation, it was deplorable.
Deplorable or not, Parker probably won't be fired by ESPN. Nor should he be.
First Take lives on the edge, always looking for a manufactured debate that blurs the line between sports and political correctness so we can stop paying attention to real sports stories and talk about them. That isn't the only property at ESPN to use the same gambit. Colin Cowherd has made a living on radio for years playing a similar game. It's nothing new, but First Take has managed to consistently take it to a level unseen on TV before.
So Parker won't get fired for this. He will probably be off TV for a while—as a contributor, he's not on the air every day anyway—and sometime after the new year, he'll come back on and people will be up in arms that "the racist" was allowed back on TV, making no mention of the fact that Bayless has done or said far worse in his time and still manages to keep his chair warm on the show.
Parker crossed a line. His comments were absurd. He should have been suspended because ESPN needs to show a modicum of class and dignity toward the athletes it covers and all races and creeds in the audience that watches its programming. But firing Parker would mean a change in philosophy for First Take. Firing Parker would be the first step in changing the game, cleaning up the show and making it less about the personalities and more about the stories they're covering.
That won't happen.
That won't happen as long as we keep talking about them this way. If Parker gets fired, then every producer on the show should be fired too. You don't think they planned that conversation? Maybe the producers didn't know Parker was going to use the specific term "cornball brother," but don’t think for one second those in charge of the show didn't know where the topic was going to go. Nearly every second of those shows is mapped out in production meetings. There is no way a producer wouldn't have been in the host's ear to abort the segment if they didn't like what they heard.
It's not racist if it's provocative, right? Parker was just peddling the crap he was asked to peddle. One day it's guessing a rube's weight to win a bunch of crap, the next it's calling out a star quarterback for a bunch of rubes to change the channel to your show.
ESPN is not all bad, by the way. There is a lot of quality programming, and the network's coverage of actual sports is still as good as anyone's in the industry. It's just that the sideshow distracts us from that quality. We spent more time talking about Parker in the last two days than any actual sporting event that ESPN has on the air.
Inside Bristol, many hard-working reporters, hosts and analysts hate that First Take exists. One told me it was a "destructive force" to the brand. Some are embarrassed to be in the same building, wishing it—and those involved—would just go away altogether. But it won't. Not for this.
No, First Take isn't going away, and for my money, neither is Parker. ESPN has five national 24-hour channels totaling 120 hours of programming every single day of the year, and all people seem to be talking about is a three-minute conversation where Parker and Bayless debated a quarterback's blackness.
Who's going to step up next to win some crap?
Remember, it's a profit deal. They will keep doing this until nobody pays attention anymore. Which should be today, for everyone. If you want Parker to be fired, if you want Bayless or Smith to be off the air, the simple way is to ignore them.
From this point forward, the next time we hear the carnival barkers yapping, just walk right on down the Midway to the next Jerk with a microphone.