Before I get into the meat of this article, I would like to establish some credentials. The only things that play on my TV are live sporting events, ESPN, Fox Sports, Netflix and HBO. The only websites bookmarked on my phone are Youtube, ESPN, Deadspin, Bleacher Report and Grantland. I have the ESPN radio app so that I can Bluetooth Mike and Mike, Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption during my long commutes. The only radio stations programmed in my car are ESPN radio, Fox Sports Radio and NBC sports radio. I have been watching sports longer than I have been walking. I saw Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson play in person. I regularly travel to attend Colts games. I watch the Olympics and the World Cup. I follow free agency and drafts.
I love sports. I have always loved sports. I look forward to handing down a love of sports to the next generation of Packwood’s.
All of that said: the current state of sports media, and the culture of hating that it promotes, makes enjoying sports increasingly difficult.
Let’s clarify “culture of hating.” I am pro rivalries, as long as they stop short of physical violence. Eagles fans and Cowboys fans should despise each other, Red Sox fans should frown when forced to endure a Yankees fan, and everybody should hate the Patriots. Because fuck Tom Brady. If somebody chooses to enter enemy territory, they should be subjected to the worst sorts of verbal abuse. It is the God given right of every fan to look down their nose at people who clearly lack the good sense to root for the correct team.
For instance: I hate Tom Brady.
He is an Uggs hawking, douchebag pretty boy who (allegedly) lacks the requisite hand strength to properly grip a regulation football. The best part of the Wells report was the knowledge that the people who prepare his equipment also loathe him! I firmly believe that Peyton Manning is a superior quarterback. Brady benefits from a hall of fame coach, solid defenses, a truck load of luck and what from the outside appears to be an ends-justify-the-means organization. All of that said, he is a fantastic quarterback… one of the best of all time. You can pencil him in for 10-12 wins and a deep playoff run every season, when he had a top flight receiver he shit all over the record books and a large part of my dislike for him comes from watching him bounce my team out of the playoffs too many times. When I talk to my grandchildren, I will tell them that I watched Manning and Brady duel for the title of “Best Ever” in my lifetime. Because I have no shame, when I needle Patriots fans I call him a “system quarterback,” but the truth is this: it’s a privilege to watch every single professional athlete.
According to Census data, there are 318.9 million people in the United States.
- At the beginning of the 2014-2015 NBA season, there were 447 players on active rosters
- For Opening Day of the 2014-2015 MLB season, there were 750 players on active rosters
- At any given moment in the NFL, there are 1696 players on active rosters
- Golf tournaments invite somewhere around 150 players
- Tennis tournaments typically start with a field of 128
Simple mathematics tells us that even the most populated professional sport represents an exponential fraction of our total population. Or, put another way, the worst player in the NBA’s D-League still shatters the far right end of the bell curve representing human athletic achievement to an absurdly comical degree. Despite this, these days one struggles to get through much more than a single segment, article or comment section without tripping over “sucks,” “overrated,” “bust” and worse… In order to follow sports today, you have to be willing to wade through a certain level of vitriol and stupidity.
I realize with some athletes, such as Lebron James and Tiger Woods, there is a certain level of schadenfreude involved. After all, LBJ has a “Chosen One” tattoo and Woods put his clubs in other people’s bags all across the country. But James does things on a basketball court that we literally have never seen before. And for a solid decade and change, “Woods or the field” was a real thing that we really talked about. Years from now, I’ll talk about Sunday charges and red Nike shirts in reverent tones because – even though he seems like a puke of a human being – on a golf course he was the closest thing to Platonic perfection I will probably ever see. Who cares if he never catches Jack? Who cares if Jordon was better than James? Open up your eyes and just watch what these guys are doing!
We’ve lost touch with wonder – that feeling when Jordan dunked from the free throw line and you stared at the screen in abject disbelief. (Although, now, the “highlight truthers” will point out that he actually stepped inside the free throw line because they are joyless fucks who exist only to shit on the rest of us.)
In today’s “If you didn’t win the championship you failed” sports media, we’ve lost touch with joy. We have lost the ability to appreciate.
So what happened?
It feels like there was a seismic shift recently in how sports are covered and consumed, and I trace it backwards to somebody who I actually love listening to: Jim Rome. I believe the man who brought us phrases such as “Give me an A or an F,” and “Have a Take” fundamentally changed the sports media landscape for the worse.
Through several televisions shows and a wildly successful radio show, Rome (and his army of “Clones”) led the charge into a new era of sports coverage, where the almighty TAKE became king. The hotter the take, the better. The Smack Off was built to see whose takes could break the scoville scale. The primary export of The Jungle was Aloe, for all the acres of fucking burns laid down hour after hour, day after day.
Except… it’s all a joke. It is satire of the highest order. Rome’s charm has always been that he’s in on the joke. Every moment spent watching and listening to him is one long wink and nudge. Every second of it is engineered for humor and entertainment. His methods were never supposed to be used for earnest sports coverage. And yet, that’s exactly what has now happened.
The root of the problem
In diagnosing the disease that is today’s sport media, we can identify many symptoms: disingenuous hosts, an endless parade of cliches, discourse designed to tear athletes down, etc. Some unholy mix of the 24 hour news cycle and whatever social gene drives people to try to be the “first!” commenter online represents the cancer that gives life to these maladies. This is why Eli Manning and Joe Flacco expressing self confidence became ticker tape news stories. “Eli and Joe are delusional.” Even if they were… IF YOUR FRANCHISE QUARTERBACK SAYS ANYTHING OTHER THAN “I THINK I AM THE BEST QUARTERBACK IN THE LEAGUE, YOU NEED A NEW FRANCHISE QUARTERBACK. This should not have been a story, let alone something that at one point dominated a day’s worth of panels and talk shows.
We now have a melting pot of hot takes, a race to publish first and 24 hours in a day that by God have to be filled with something. I suppose that pandering to the lowest common denominator was the inevitable conclusion.
The First Take-ism of Sports Media
Which brings us to the worst offenders. Stephen A. Smith, sewage stench coalesced into human form, and Skip Bayless, the magical septic tank that taught itself to talk. Somewhere in this world, there exists a poor tree that works tirelessly all day long in order to produce the oxygen these two turn into verbal diarrhea. This tree hates itself, and it deserves our pity.
When Smith isn’t shouting nonsense at the top of his lungs, he’s erroneously advising women to not provoke domestic violence. And Bayless has so little journalistic integrity that even Adam-Schefter-tweeting-JPP’s-medical-charts wants nothing to do with him. I’ve tried to watch First Take. I also once accidentally electrocuted myself trying to clean out a toaster. Guess which experience I would repeat, if given a choice?
These two have a show built around fabricated anger, faux controversy and saying whatever contrarian idea the suits have decided will drive ratings. The show is so flagrantly vile and dishonest that you almost have to respect its audacity. Until you remember that sports is really about that time your father took you to a baseball game and taught you how to keep score, so that you finally cracked the mystery of the 4-6-3 double play. Until you remember that awe has been replaced by awful.
Which brings us to Colin Cowherd.
Shrill. Borderline racist. Imbecilic. He recently did an interview with Jim Harbaugh that bombed. Common consensus is Harbaugh was a complete asshat for how he conducted himself during the interview (and that he’s just an asshat in general). But look at the transcript below, and tell me how you would have handled this “interview.”
CC: “I think I’ve only met Jim Harbaugh once or twice. Uh, he’s very intense. But I like intense. Most of my friends are intense. I’m kind of intense. And he’s the head football coach at Michigan. And people have to be realistic about this. He didn’t get a huge class last year, because he came in a little late. So you have… never forget, Pete Carrol was 6-6 his first year at USC. You know you can’t turn stuff around overnight. Let’s not be unrealistic here. But will he turn it around? Oh absolutely, Michigan is a traditional power, he can recruit, he knows quarterbacks and that drives the sport. Jim Harbaugh is joining us… Are you – When are you at your least intense? Because you are a pretty intense guy.”
JH: “Well good morning, Colin, how are you?”
CC: “I’m great, coach, how are you?”
JH: “Good to hear your voice.”
CC: “Thank you so much. Is there ever a moment in the day you’re like, I’m cupcake, I’m soft, I’m easy goi – when’s the part of the day that you are just a pushover?”
Cowherd’s intro contains just as much information about himself and his friends as it does about his “featured guest.” Even at his most optimistic, he leads with and slants towards the negative. He brings up another college coach that has nothing to do with his guest. Then he’s too in love with the sound of his own voice to exchange pleasantries. When Harbaugh calls him on being rude, he blows past it and then takes twenty-eight-and-a-half words to ask a balls stupid question. No fucking wonder Harbaugh was immediately turned off. Cowherd seems like the sort of dude that enjoys the smell of his own shit. I can’t imagine his own mother enjoys talking to him.
Say what you want about Chris Berman, but he is only guilty of two things: sticking around for way too long, and being obnoxious. He still loves sports. Even though watching him now evokes a deep sadness, even though I cringe through every terrible sound effect and even though listening to him these days most closely resembles a small child drooling on itself – at least you know he still loves what he does. Smith, Bayless and Cowherd view the hand that feeds them, as well as fans, with naked contempt.
So where do we go from here?
Sadly, I have no solutions here. The media is built around what drives traffic and ratings. Clearly this approach to sports coverage sells, or they wouldn’t do it. I’m just one dude. But I’m one dude that won’t watch First Take or listen to Colin Cowherd, nor will I give my advertising dollars to anything to closely resembles any of them. And I will hope that enough like minded people reach the same breaking point I have, that enough people will want to go back to watching sports for the thrill of seeing human beings push the boundaries of what is physically possible. I would love for us all to talk about sports without people getting nasty.
Except when the Patriots are involved. Seriously, fuck those guys.