ESPN: How the Worldwide Leader in Sports Has Failed the Fans

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ESPN: How the Worldwide Leader in Sports Has Failed the Fans
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Why do we gravitate to sports?

Six simple words and an enigmatic punctuation with an answer that is so heavily layered it could easily be mistaken for a New York City high-rise. In their simplest form, sports are simply fun, a game that is meant to be played for enjoyment and entertainment.

However, to those who have played, coached or fanaticized, the answer is a lot deeper within, almost intrinsic yet inexplicable. They play for competition. They root to feel as though they belong. For some it’s inherited and for others it’s simply a matter of geography, but whatever the reason, sports simply has a hold on us.

It can evoke so many emotions that it often serves as a microcosm of life, with each game and each season representing an entire lifetime of its own. However, at the same time it also offers respite from ordinary life.

In life there are grey areas, while in sports there is winning and losing as defined by the scoreboard. It’s about as close to black and white as it gets.

ESPN

Four letters standing as both an acronym and a globally recognized symbol for the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network. It’s a byproduct of our societal love affair with sports, and over the course of the last 30-plus years it’s earned the moniker of sports’ “Worldwide Leader.”

But has ESPN effectively saturated the meaning of the game?

There is no questioning the importance of ESPN in the growth of televised sports in this country and across the world. ESPN has effectively built a platform for sports the likes of which have never been seen, but is it possible that the stage has just gotten too damn high?

Does the good outweigh the bad with ESPN?

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The answer is easily and irrefutably yes.

ESPN has propelled the world of sports to heights that were simply unfathomable just over 30 years ago, but as the face of the entire sporting world, ESPN has failed the average fan and corruption has seeped into so many levels of the organization that it could reasonably be mistaken for 1860 Tammany Hall.

What was once fans' greatest resource has become nothing more than their greatest source of disappointment. An agenda-driven corporate machine, ESPN has lost the quality and charm of its earlier days, and it’s hopelessly diluting sports as a whole.

The folks at the Walt Disney Company and the Hearst Corporation (ESPN’s parent companies) would like you to think that ESPN serves as a vessel for growth in sports, but when you peel back the covers you’ll find the cruel mistress that drives ESPN to destroy its foundation (surprisingly it’s not Craig James.)

As is often the case with a corporate entity, money has simply sunk its teeth into ESPN and sucked the life out of it, and seemingly in a trance, ESPN has nonchalantly gone about infesting individual sports like a colony of termites, slowly but surely compromising the structural integrity of each sport until it nears collapse.

Unfortunately, it’s the fans and athletes who have been put in harm’s way.

Bit by bit, ESPN seems content to chip away at its core demographic and alienate its most loyal viewers, but who’s to stop them? They have a stranglehold on the market, so they do virtually whatever they want when they want.

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They attack our sanity with repetitive storylines, trotting out formerly respected athletes and journalists and giving them predetermined stances to drone on about like leashed terriers. Even guys like 11-time sportswriter of the year Rick Reilly has been relegated to reading what equated to third-grade poetry on the air.

ESPN, the Guantanamo Bay of sports journalism.

They stake Ed Werder out on Brett Favre’s perfectly manicured front lawn with up-to-the-second updates on the hue of his bowel movements. Then, of course, you have “The Decision,” an hour of programming so enraging that, for a moment, even charitable folks considered the feasibility of carpet bombing a Greenwich, Connecticut Boys and Girls Club (a harrowing thought, even for a cynic like myself.)

However, as maddening as ESPN’s coverage of professional sports has been, nobody has gotten it worse than collegiate sports.

The notion of amateur athletics simply doesn’t compute to ESPN (maybe they SHOULD have access to those BCS formulas.) What’s that? You want these kids to play sports, and WITHOUT getting paid for it? That doesn’t exclude us from making a couple bucks here….does it?

No, apparently it does not.

If you’re heading for the doors now, I promise you this isn’t another “pay the players” article. I’ll leave my feelings on that matter out entirely, but I do have some pretty strong feelings about ESPN throwing around money in order to strong-arm the NCAA.

The corporate big-wigs were almost solely responsible for all the conference realignment nonsense. By effectively dangling briefcases full of money on a string, ESPN has coaxed conferences to add/subtract in a way that suits the “suits” in Bristol quite nicely.

Sports like basketball and football are big money, so in order to maximize profit, the formation of super-conferences was encouraged and rewarded.

Yet, nobody is out there looking out for the athletes and fans of non-revenue sports.

Of course I won’t watch an SEC swim meet on a Wednesday afternoon, but that doesn’t mean that an Aggie diver should have to travel all the way to South Carolina mid-week, driving up travel costs, decimating study time and giving athletic departments every reason to cut these “lesser” programs altogether.

Conference realignment decimated rivalries and made certain programs irrelevant while handsomely remunerating schools that appeased them with bags of money (ahem Texas.)  It’ll get worse before it’s all said and done, and schools that are afraid to bite the hand that feeds them will assimilate or be destroyed (awkwardly appropriate Star Trek reference.)

Forget hundred-dollar handshakes; we’re talking about multi-million dollar payoffs.

However, conference realignment barely scratches the surface of the transgressions by ESPN against sportskind.

If ESPN didn’t flummox you enough as an acronym, there is their three-lettered partner in crime, the BCS. With the backing of the boys in Bristol, the BCS has been given free rein to shoot from the hip while ranking collegiate football teams and selecting the sports’ national champion.

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The results should be considered a crime scene. While stabbing in the dark, the BCS has seemingly gutted an already-mutilated system, leaving something so abstract it makes Picasso look like a realist. Six computer formulas and two weighted human polls combine to form…something.

Nobody is really sure what it actually is, because not even the BCS knows everything about the BCS.

As outlined by Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel in his Nov. 29 column, the BCS doesn’t even have access to five of the six computer formulas they use in their rankings. The rights to the formulas are held by their developers, and only Wes Colley makes his rankings available to the public, and even worse, Colley’s ranking have been proven wrong on multiple occasions.

As for the others, BCS officials can’t even check their accuracy, so there is no actual way to verify anything that the BCS says. It’s like banking on the honor system or trying to take test without any questions. What are they actually looking for and how do we even know our investments are safe?

The next logical step for ESPN and the BCS is to just simulate the games on NCAA 2012.

EA Sports does have exclusive deals with both ESPN and the BCS, after all. ESPN doesn’t like to get serious with its partners, but they’ve become the poster boys for “friends with benefits” in the business world. Only in this case, you have full license to hate the player and not the game.

ESPN doesn’t know what the BCS does, but they’ve been in bed with each other since 1998 and that thing that BCS does where they throw heaps of money around really drives ESPN wild, if you know what I mean.

Whatever the BCS formula actually is, it seems to make plutonium look remarkably stable. Yet, we use it to select the participants of our national championship? 120 teams whittled down to two with mysterious computers, and let’s not forget the polls, the Coaches’ and the Harris.

Sounds remarkably similar to something you’d find in a spell book.

At risk of repackaging the words of Mr. Wetzel, the polls are nearly as big of a mockery as the computer systems. The coaches don’t actually watch football and the Harris voters seemingly watch too much, as they are easily influenced by media coverage.

The BCS is a sham in and of itself, but how does this all tie back into our suspect at large?

Well, for a nominal fee, ESPN does everything it can to lend BCS legitimacy by trotting out so-called experts on an hour-long special every weekend to reveal their rankings. Sure, the brass may allow Chris Fowler to vehemently oppose the BCS from his soapbox every Saturday morning, but with BCS rights in tow, who do you think the network is really backing?

Maybe you don’t mind the BCS or conference realignment.  How has ESPN recently wronged you outside of the three years of wall-to-wall Terrell Owens coverage?

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There’s always the poor news coverage as a whole and the blatant hypocrisy. ESPN was almost 24 hours behind several other news outlets when news of the Penn State scandal broke. Then when news of Joe Paterno’s firing broke and the ensuing riot broke out, ESPN was absolutely destroyed by CNN in live coverage.

A dainty British broad directed traffic seamlessly and CNN put boots on the ground in State College and eviscerated the Worldwide Leader without any knowledge of football (she had to ask if Penn State had a game that week.)

Despite the seemingly unlimited resources of the worldwide leader in sports, ESPN failed to get any live coverage of the actual riot, deciding to fixate what appeared to be their only camera on Tom Rinaldi and his aggressively pink tie while having every analyst in their stable talk about their feelings back in Connecticut.

It was like a public television broadcast of “The View,” except instead of a diverse group of women, we got a bunch of middle-aged ex-athletes who have all shown signs of post-concussion syndrome at one point or another.

Was there anything more disingenuous than Matt Millen sobbing like a schoolgirl at the thought of child molestation, yet defending Joe Paterno’s “right” to due process at the same time? I’m no Roger Cossack, but I don’t think an issue of morality is privy to the right of due process.

Even if it was, in my mind, those rights were suspended the moment that Paterno neglected the courtesy of an investigation that should have been afforded to those kids.

However, the debauchery didn’t stop there. Over the next couple of days, ESPN justifiably condemned Paterno for jeopardizing the safety of children and failing to report the alleged sexual abuse to the proper authorities.

Seemingly desperate to make up for botched coverage in the immediate aftermath of the scandal, the suits relentlessly hammered away at Paterno and Penn State, but little did we know the blatant hypocrisy of it all.

Weeks later,it was learned that ESPN withheld critical evidence of sexual abuse within the Syracuse basketball program for eight years. The same organization that crucified Paterno and the Penn State administration had been guilty of the exact same thing for nearly a decade.

The reasoning? To protect an exclusive, and then to have the audacity to stand behind shield laws. Talk about morally reprehensible.

The sad part is that it had all gone on under our noses for quite some time. They’ve effectively lobotomized their viewers and they’ve rolled up anyone and everyone who has tried to stop them. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t seem like there is any stopping them.

The Internet serves as a better source of information, but it doesn’t look like anyone can cut into ESPN’s market share on television. NBC Sports is trying to mount an offensive, but the “Mothership” is entrenched, and it looks like there’s no way around it.

So without options, we’ll sit back and subject ourselves to Craig James grunting his way through an entire telecast and Linda Cohn cackling like a wounded pterodactyl for six hours in a row on SportsCenter, but we sure as hell won’t like it. 

In the case of James, you almost have to hope that he wins a Senatorial seat just so that I can maintain my sanity while ESPN force-feeds me an obscure Thursday night college football game like I’m some sort of dope-fiend.

But, there’s nothing we can do. We have a societal addiction to sports, and we need rehab.

We’ve all been in a state of denial, but how many of you have horror stories where you’ve sideswiped parked cars and run women and children off the road just so you could make it back from Publix in time to get your frozen pizza in the oven and plop down on the couch to watch Paul Finebaum talk about the Iron Bowl (college football’s equivalent of the Cold War) for an hour?

Maybe that last one was just me, but chances are that if you made it through the first 2,200-plus words of this column you’ve done something remarkably similar, and we all have ESPN to blame. We know it’s taking a toll on us, but now we need it, and ESPN knows it.

 

Ryan Wooden is a freelance contributor to the Morris Daily Herald, the Chicago Bears Examiner for Examiner.com, and the lead columnist for KnoxVegasVols.com. This article was originally published on his personal blog. Be sure to follow Ryan on Twitter @Ryan_Wooden.

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