Monday, January 31, 2011

ESPN and the Cult of Personality

Winning isn't everything. That appears to be the belief at ESPN, where personality trumps success in their programming. Tiger Woods finished 44th in last week's golf tournament at Torrey Pines. Not exactly a great result, but apparently not bad enough to prevent a player who has not won in over a year from getting more coverage from the world wide leader during the weekend than the winner, young phenom Bubba Watson, and the second place finisher Phil Mickelson (a hugely successful golfer in his own right).
Such treatment is par for the course in sports media these days. Even when Woods is out of contention almost every shot of his is shown, everything he does on and off the course is scrutinized and dissected. The casual fan probably couldn't name another golfer.
Tiger's fame is a by-product of the burgeoning sports media empire dominated by the ESPN family of networks. Their various channels spend an inordinate amount of time on only one participant among a hundred, letting us know virtually everything about him while telling us little or nothing about the rest of the field.
Thanks to ESPN Tiger has become as much a celebrity as he is an athlete. Maybe that's okay considering golf is an individual, not a team sport. We can't accuse him of being selfish or "making it all about him" because when he steps onto the course, it really is all about his play.
Sadly though, this "cult of personality" driven media coverage is not limited to golf. The four letter network have also deified the likes of Brett Favre, Barry Bonds, and Lebron James. James, who has yet to win an NBA championship in seven NBA seasons, was given the nickname "King" while still in high school.
As tired as I am of hearing about Tiger while the other hundred golfers actually in contention are ignored, my ire is really raised when these players of team sports are treated as the only people that matter. The following are true stories, which will show you the depth of ESPN's obsession with certain individuals.
In the days leading up to NFL training camp, I started to refer to ESPN's seminal show, Sportscenter, as Favrecenter (apparently the station's Linda Cohn agreed with that assessment). The show dwelt on every mundane detail of the quarterback's decision to play or retire. I would put on the Spanish subtitles just to see something different on the bottom of the screen, but to my horror it read Favre, Favre, Favre, Favre, Favre......
During 2006 Barry Bonds had his own TV show on ESPN, "Bonds on Bonds." The network also had a reporter, Pedro Gomez, whose sole job was to report on the fascinating world of Barry Bonds. I know there is a lot of pressure for a 24-hour sports news network to provide programming, but clearly there is no better example of overkill than this Bonds fetish.
The ESPN relationship with Lebron James comes close, however, most notably with his program "The Decision," a thirty minute self-aggrandizing mess that severely hurt the star's reputation, especially after he used the time to spurn his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and "take his talents to South Beach" as he so eloquently put it. Pro basketball coverage on the network is so skewed towards James and his Heat as well as the Los Angeles Lakers (led by another "personality," Kobe Bryant) that one would think they are the only teams competing for the title. All the while the San Antonio Spurs, a real "team" without any superstars leads the NBA with an impressive 40 wins against only seven losses (and the Boston Celtics actually have the second best record).
As much as ESPN may want us to think otherwise, however, these athletes are not alone in their endeavors. Favre, as he discovered during a painful season where most of his anatomy was disfigured at one time or another, is useless without an offensive line. Lebron can't win a single championship without other great players like Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh around him, as he learned to his horror in Cleveland. Barry Bonds retired without ever winning a World Series. You can't drive in runners who aren't on base no matter how many steroids you purportedly inject into your system.
My point is, these are team sports that can't be won by individuals regardless of how great they are (or the media tells us they are). The three superstars I highlighted here have combined for a grand total of one championship in forty plus professional seasons. The aspect of team seems to be lost somewhere in this avalanche of star-centric coverage.
But don't we need heroes you might ask? Isn't the cult of personality ESPN creates just a response to something we all have a secret yearning for, a superman who can perform feats the likes of which we can only dream?
Many of us do have the need for heroes and I think that's perfectly healthy. There is no doubt that athletes like Bonds, Favre, and James all have the amazing ability to change games, to make more of a difference than the average player.
All I ask of ESPN and other sports networks is that they remember that there are other guys out there on the field. Would anyone object if they showed a great block by the left tackle once in a while? How about a highlight of Udonis Haslem setting a screen to get Lebron open for a jumper? Why not a video of Barry Bonds trainer shooting him up in the buttocks?
Okay, maybe not the last one, but you get the point - our heroes are nothing without the teammates, coaches, and support staff around them. Even Tiger Woods has struggled without his old swing coach, Butch Harmon. In the end all of these superstars are fallible, worthy of our awe perhaps, but not worthy of our worship. So let's drop the cult of personality - there are plenty of great sports stories out there that don't involve Brett Favre's next bowel movement.


Anonymous said...

Man you really nailed it. You should send this editorial to ESPN bro, this is extremely well written and you inject some great timely humor (I especially dig the quip about showing footage of Bonds being shot up in the buttocks-nice).
You hit all the highlights and just to further prove your point about how ESPN emphasizes individuals over teams, just look at their commercials about the pro sport for which their networks have now monopolized coverage, the NBA. It's never the Lakers, it's 'Kobe and the Lakers.' It's never the Heat, it's 'Lebron and the Heat.' These players have somehow transcended sport and become a category unto themselves. Favre, Woods and Lebron have all at one time been listed as their own category on ESPN's bottom line, separate and distinct from the professional sports leagues to which they belong.
As you eloquently state, once again it's the 'how do you fill the void?' problem of 24 hour sports network. There are simply times when there are no sports headlines to talk about, so in order to fill the air time they have to turn an athlete's life into some personal soap opera. Favre was a prime candidate because he is an narcissistic attention whore, and Tiger Woods infidelity offered the perfect opening for a day time drama. The fact that the ESPN cameras still follow him everywhere he goes and ignore the golfers who are actually worth a shit, shows the extent to which ESPN has become more interested in infotainment than the actual game action and legitimate sports stories. Your example of the Spurs is a great one. There is no reason why they shouldn't be the story of the NBA this year. Instead it's can Kobe and the Lakers get out of their slump in time for a date with Lebron and the Heat in ESPN's wet dream pre-ordained NBA final. All because the Spurs don't have any flashy outspoken superstars, just some humble, team-oriented, hard working players who get the job done night in and night out. 'Boring,' says ESPN. We can't market that. We need LeBrand James to save us. Fuck those assholes. I hope it's the Spurs and the Bulls. Suck on that ESPN.

Alastair McCandless said...

Well said, especially your point about the stars being included in the game promotions. I think I got you fired up a bit, fuck those ass holes indeed!