If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my 40-plus orbits of the sun on this spinning blue marble we call Earth, it’s that cynicism works. Trusting your fellow man and believing in the integrity of others might make you feel better, but ultimately your best long-term bet is to treat everyone and everything with a big dose of industrial-strength skepticism and unhealthy levels of distrust.
As a general rule, it’s always wise to just assume that if anyone is taking the time, going through the trouble and making the effort to communicate with you, they’re doing it for the benefit of ... brace yourself ... themselves.
For instance, you know those telemarketers who call you at dinner and say, “How are you tonight, sir?” Call me suspicious, but I’ve kind of noticed that they’re really not calling because they want to find out how you are that night. You might think this is just paranoia. But as the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t really out to get you.
And that goes for all our major institutions. The government. The church. Business. My wife’s family (especially). And even, dare I say it, the sports media. After a lot of soul searching, I’ve come to realize that all these groups operate not out of kindness or a desire to serve the greater good, but in their own best interest. It’s shocking, but true.
I bring this up in the wake of the hideously embarrassing fiasco that was ESPN’s Lebronapalooza last week. Look, I’m not a media critic. I’m no ombudsman. In fact, I can safely say I’ve never ommed a bud in my life. Hell, I’m barely even a writer. But when it comes to sports media, like all of you, I’m a consumer. And as far as I’m concerned, that makes me an expert.
And also like the vast majority of the American sports fan public, I’m a huge ESPN customer. For a generation now, they’ve dominated the sports information market, and it’s hard to catch breaking news, watch a game or follow a story without the Worldwide Leader’s fingers sticking in the pie somewhere.
But thanks in part to my healthy skepticism, a long time ago I gave up any pretense that ESPN was dedicated to delivering sports news on the level. We’ve witnessed far too much jock sniffing, favoritism, back scratching and blatant self promotion for anybody to think they're out to do anything but pump up ratings and sell ads.
There's a long list of examples of the Worldwide Leader shamelessly pimping itself out for the sake of access to a celebrity athlete or reporting on one of its own schedule-filling silly sports as if it's something the public really cares about. The annual Brett Favre Retirementapalooza. The kid gloves with which they treated Tiger Woods. The way they’ve ignored the Tim Donaghy scandal. Pretending the WNBA is relevant. The hushed, reverent, worshipful genuflecting at the feet of the World Cup. And what was particularly galling to Patriots fans, the way they arbitrarily ignored the Ben Roethlisberger sexual assault charge (not that one, the other one) after they gleefully did wall-to-wall coverage of the fake Randy Moss assault charge and the phoney “Walk Through Tapegate” story in the run-up to Super Bowl XLII. And the list goes on and on.
I get that ESPN is major corporation with thousands of shareholders’ mouths to feed. And ultimately it’s all about ratings and page views as it is with WEEI and any media outlet. But the decision to air “The Decision” was a new low in sports journatainment. I can't believe that everyone involved didn't need a "Silkwood" shower after that disgrace.
From the fawning intro that sounded like A) a video an agent would put together to promote a potential draft pick or B) Lebron’s eHarmony tape, to the graphic of Lebron wearing different uniforms like he was a dress-up doll to Stuart Scott casually dropping in an "Oh, by the way, I played hoops against President Obama ..." the entire thing was a travesty. Eliot Spitzer had to resign in disgrace for paying Ashley Dupre to do to him what ESPN did to James that night. And one would assume she didn’t have to do it for an hour or call him “King” while it happened.
Again, I get why they did it. It’s all about ratings and buzz and everyone I know watched “The Decision” and talked about it the next day. It was a coup for the WWL. But at what price? I mean, what if LeBron’s people didn’t stop at the ground rules they set for that thing? What if instead of settling for having Stu tell us about all the wonderful moments of pure joy he’s brought into our lives the way he did, what if they made him say that Cleveland is a rotten hell-hole and they should think themselves blessed James ever deemed to live there? What if instead of merely having Jim Gray ask him pre-approved questions, what if they demanded Gray rub his feet and tell him how wonderful he is? Would ESPN have agreed to that, too? Where do you draw the line?
Take, for example, Michael Wilbon, who was a part of this traveshamockery. Like most red-blooded American males, I’m a huge fan of “Pardon the Interruption.” And when Wilbon goes on a rant about somebody’s phoniness and hypocrisy, you shove the TV clicker down into the sofa cushions because you don’t want anyone changing the station on you. It’s great television. But how can he look us in the eye again after groveling before “The King” like this? For his part, Wilbon has said he sees people’s point but it’s just sports and everyone needs to chill, and he has a point. One I hope he keeps in mind next time he’s ranting about someone else’s disingenuousness. And I hope he was paid whatever his credibility is worth, because that’s what he gave up in all this.
And on that note, how, after this, is ESPN or ABC supposed to cover the Miami Heat next year? Let’s say, God willing, the Heat meet the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. How are the people at The Mouse going to claim they’re not biased in favor of Miami? I don’t recall them turning over an hour of their schedule after the Kevin Garnett trade. If ABC has a shred of decency left (a big assumption, I know), it will recuse itself and walk out of the arena like Senator Geary during the Michael Corleone hearings.
Of course, this is the part where you say, “Say, Jerry, aren’t you just accusing ESPN of doing the same thing WEEI does? And haven’t you written glowing things about Bill Belichick and Terry Francona like you were a 12-year-old girl writing about Justin Bieber? Who’s being the hypocrite now?" Well, the fact is that 'EEI doesn’t pay me to speak on anyone else’s behalf. But it seems to me like there’s a huge difference in say, having a coach on once a week and being civil to the guy even when the team is struggling and giving an hour over to one ballplayer so you can help him satisfy his bizarre delusions of grandeur. That’s just plain embarrassing for you and for us.
And as for me writing creepy, stalkery tributes to Belichick and Francona? That’s an entirely different thing altogether. Those guys are The Way and The Light, and if we would all follow their examples, the world would be a better place. That’s not hero worship. It’s fact. Or my opinion. And I’m just a fan writing a column, not a major network pretending to deliver news. It might make me a fanboy, but unlike the guys at ESPN, at least it doesn’t mean I’m a hypocrite.