Bruce Feldman, ESPN and the Growing Sports Entertainment Problem

The ESPY Awards - sports entertainment? (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for ESPN)

Bruce Feldman has become a something of a minor celebrity over the past several days.  Since American culture is obsessive over random people for seemingly no reason at all, this, in and of itself, shouldn't be surprising.  Given that Feldman is a journalist, ostensibly someone who writes about the news and isn't seeking to become a story within it[1], Friday's turn of events is actually quite stunning.

Feldman, perhaps ESPN's most lauded college football reporter, was suspended indefinitely[2] on Friday for co-authoring a book with former Texas Tech head football coach and resident pirate scholar Mike Leach.  A book that ESPN was aware of and gave approval for; you know, before they found out what was in it was damning to their "brand" and one of their prominent television personalities.

For the past four days, Feldman's brothers-in-arms have taken to Twitter and blogs on all corners of the Internet to take their swings at the ESPN piñata.  As Kevin Powers noted Saturday on Slow States, "The Subsidiary of Disney got so Properly Owned here I'm struggling to fight off contrarianism."

In short, ESPN has been embarrassed.  Still, this isn't likely to be problematic to them for more than a few more days.  This is a story about a college football reporter that the vast majority of the viewing public has never heard of.  The network will ignore it on-air, publish another insultingly simplistic press release, and move on.  But we'd be remiss if we didn't take this opportunity to open a wider discussion about ESPN and their business model.  SBNation's Spencer Hall has already sounded the alarm:

Feldman's suspension -- and this is purely guesswork -- came about out of the sheer incompetence and breakneck ignorance an organization as big as ESPN/Disney/Matsumoto Fishing Concern produces. By structure, ESPN as a whole owes nothing to journalism, or even the act of stating fact, an inherent tension between the "E" in their name and the news it presents. When the two come into conflict, the one attached to cable subscriptions and the pipeline of cash wins, and everything else is thrown into a snowbank of indifference.

Earlier this month, BSD covered Difference Makers: Life Lessons with Paterno and Krzyzewski, an hour and a half long special that featured ESPN's Rece Davis holding court with two coaches who "do things the right way."  Whether you enjoyed Difference Makers or thought it was a bit too schmaltzy and cliché is irrelevant here.  What we know is that Difference Makers was aired for the same reason that every other program on the network is scheduled - to draw a large number of viewers in order to increase television ratings that generate ad revenue.

For a long time, I had no issue with ESPN's business strategy.  While I'm not interested in seeing Skip Bayless on my television ever again, I realize that there's a market for all sorts of sports-related content.  Some of the best opinion journalism anywhere exists on the ESPN family of networks.  Skip Bayless is the exception and not the rule.

ESPN is primarily in the entertainment industry.  That's not the problem.  The problem is when ESPN's entertainment steps over the line and actually influences the athletic contests it covers.  That's when you get comments like this:

 


Our legacy is that we were bigger than the score of the game.  Did we want to win two championships?  Yes, but we didn't.  But tell me who won a championship 3 years ago.  Tell me who won a championship 5 years ago.  Tell me who was the starting lineup for the Carolina team that beat us.

 

If that were an isolated comment, it'd be easy to write off Jalen Rose as an immature kid.  But it's not an isolated comment.  In fact, that attitude had become pervasive throughout the sports world.  During the Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament, Penn State beat Wisconsin 36-33 to advance to the semi-finals and assure themselves a place in the NCAA Tournament.  Admittedly, the game was bowling shoe ugly.  What may have been even uglier, however, was listening to Jay Bilas and other featured commentators opining that the NCAA Selection Committee should view the game as "a loss for both teams" because the style of play was too plodding and not "entertaining enough."

Or what about the curious case of Anderson Silva?  Silva, the 36-year old UFC Middleweight Champion, had long been regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.  In April 2010, Silva successfully defended his title against Demian Maia.  Sensing Maia was outclassed after two rounds, Silva slowed down the pace of the bout considerably in the latter rounds and held on for the five round decision.  Silva dominated Maia from one side of the cage to the other.  Instead of being heralded as the dominant champion he is, Silva was castigated by ESPN for "protecting himself" in a "disjointed effort" and failing to finish the fight.  Never mind the fact that a beaten Maia was wildly throwing punches from his knees during the final round "in order to keep the fight interesting."  Never mind that Silva is an athlete who puts himself at risk every time he steps on to the mat.  No - Silva should getting clipped by a lucky strike in order to prove himself to the media.  Even when he dominated a fight, somehow Silva's style choice put his stature as the best fighter in the world in question.  At least, that's what ESPN seemed to believe.  Even UFC President Dana White, horrified by the bad press surrounding the event, agreed:

 

"I'd rather have somebody say, 'Let's not buy the Anderson Silva fight tonight because he knocks people out in two minutes,' rather than, 'He runs around like a jackass for five rounds,'" White said.

Immediately following the fight, the latest in a string of disappointing performances from Silva that also includes ho-hum wins over Thales Leites and Patrick Cote, many began to question the champion's place on the list of the world's best pound-for-pound fighters. White refused to question Silva's talent, but he was honest about his concerns.

"As mad as I am right now, he's one of the most talented guys in the business," White said. "I don't know what I'm going to do to him right now. I don't know. I honestly don't know what to say. I'm so blown away and disgusted and saddened."

White's frustration was palpable throughout the press conference, and he'll have a challenge with future operations as Silva's performance further marred the reputation of a fighter that has the ability to entertain all fans - both casual and hardcore.

 

College football has the most complicated relationship of all with ESPN.  The network is the dominant content provider for the sport and the postseason selections are literally made through a popularity contest.  ESPN has some type of contract with every major conference, but some are more lucrative than others.  It allows the SEC and the Big 12 to reap public relations benefits that aren't available to the Big Ten in the same way.  Now, ESPN has a vested interest in Bowl Championship Series, which means that these kinds of arguments carry more weight than they used to:

 

You have said you are pro-BCS. Why?

Bill King: I am anti-NFL. I don't want college football to look like the NFL. College football doesn't need a bracketed format. The BCS makes for the best conversation, and I am unquestionable biased because it makes for good radio.

 

Bill King doesn't write or commentate for ESPN, but those arguments have been made by ESPN personalities and will continue to be made so long as the BCS "appears to have the full support of ESPN."

I won't quibble with ESPN's choice to base their business model on entertainment and not straight sports news.  But as the nation's primary provider of sports-related content, doesn't ESPN bears some responsibility to be sure that its opinions don't effect the legitimacy of the actual contests themselves?  Fundamentally, sports at the most elite levels are about winning.  Athletes don't play sports to be entertaining.  They play because they want to prove they are the best in the world at what they do.  Once ESPN begins to influence the actual strategy involved in a competition, we're no longer discussing sport.  We're discussing a phenomenon that Vince McMahon has so aptly described as "sports entertainment," akin to "Days of Our Lives" and "Jerry Springer."   What then?



[1] Let's just assume for the purposes of this post that all professional journalists are actually just trying to be journalists and move on.

[2] Or given a "time out."  Apparently, kindergarten teachers who enjoy making ridiculous semantic arguments run ESPN.

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