There was a time when I lived in northern New Jersey that ESPN was an institution in my apartment. I lived with three friends from college (1 accountant, 1 marketing/sales, 1 pre-law and me, I was, we’ll say an actor slash vagabond at the time- I slept in the living room). We would however gather in the morning before everyone went to work and at night before bed to watch Sportscenter.
This was the era of Keith Olberman and Dan Patrick, Stuart Scott and Chris “Boomer” Bergman. Hip Hop was still in its early twenties and it was a treat the way it was gently sprinkled int he speech and catch phrases of the show. We laughed as Stuart Scott made a reference to Wu Tang or Dan Patrick name checked Puff Daddy.
It was a loose show, full of energy and love for the one thing we shared: the competition of sport. I don’t live in my friends’ living room anymore. I actually get paid, instead, to come in and speak to colleges ad a recent trip to Ohio left me in a hotel with television and for the first time in a long while i went to ESPN. I’ve watched it here and there over the years but always in the background.
First Take, one of the more irritating shows was on and there i watched for an hour as Skip Bayless and Stephen Smith argued on the points of the day (should Aldon Smith be punished for stating he had a bomb at the airport? should the Heat be worried?) Their responses were comical exercises in rhetorical speech. Simple declarative sentences (“Aldon Smith should be suspended”) were stretched for 5 minutes a piece to give the illusion of debate and furthermore content. The show is set up as competition. Discourse as sport. Perhaps it is the changing zeitgeist of the times, an era we live in where school embarrassments and fistfights are broadcast on World Star Hip Hop.com, where political pundits spar their points more than discuss or debate… I found myself watching a sports show without love. The pundits wanted to believe they were the athletes we love watching, that the illusion of competition is what pulls at our hunger strings.
I listened to Colin Cowherd- an ESPN talking head- on the radio a few days earlier. ESPN radio being a behemoth growing across the country- even into my Iowa locale- the one Sports Radio station with a clear signal. Cowherd was speaking to us, his audience:
“Don’t complain that we talk about Tebow too much,” he said. “We’re a business and we have metrics and we know when we speak what you want to hear and when we mention Tebow those little arrows go up and so that’s what we are going to cover.”
It was a company man giving the company line. We are a business and we know what you want. I missed DP and Olberman in that moment, I desperately wanted to hear Stuart Scott drop a Biggie Smalls lyric. “I love it when you call me Big Papi” might not have made the metric arrow move but it made me smile, it made me feel at home. This I miss.