February 1, 2005

Separating Sports From Entertainment on ESPN

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If you have ever taken a law class, a philosophy class — any class really — you probably know how to formulate a good, intelligent argument. But that knowledge won’t help you win a sports argument — especially if you happen to be a TV commentator.

That’s because TV is all about entertainment — a fact proven by ESPN’s show of “competitive banter,” Around the Horn.

To be honest, I kind of like Around the Horn, and the network’s other talk show, Pardon the Interruption. It’s hard to be a sports fan and not like them.

But we aren’t dealing with landmark television here. Around the Horn has discussions like, “Who’s better, McNabb or Brady?” Or maybe, “What works better, the NHL or the Mafia?” The conversation is not exactly what you would call “high level,” and the show is sometimes nothing more than mediocre insult comedy. But it is better than most things on television, such as ESPN’s rodeo coverage.

Around the Horn features some unique personalities. For example, take Woody Paige — a man whose odd sense of humor has turned him into one of the most popular sports “journalists” in America.

Paige is also a columnist for The Denver Post. That used to be his main job — and it’s how he got the TV gig. But take a look at his most recent column endnote (all times are Mountain Standard):

Woody Paige’s column appears in The Denver Post on Sundays. He can be seen weekdays on Cold Pizza on ESPN2 from 6-10 a.m., Around The Horn on ESPN at 3 p.m. and ESPNews at 4 p.m. and 1st and 10 at 2 p.m. on ESPN.

Wow. That’s a lot of television for a so-called “newspaper man.” In fact, Paige doesn’t even live in Denver anymore. He moved to New York a little while ago, so he can appear on Cold Pizza — ESPN’s version of the Today show.

It seems like being on ESPN has gone to his head. Paige recently bragged about becoming friends with “Nona Gaye and Joey McIntyre” (no joke — read his Jan. 2 column, “My Year Will Be Tough to Top”). I really have no idea why he would be so proud of knowing Marvin Gaye’s daughter, or a former New Kid on the Block. But apparently he is.

Pardon the Interruption is on after Around the Horn. PTI is hosted by Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon — good writers at the Washington Post. They talk about sports, they’re usually pretty funny, and Tara Reid is mentioned at least once an episode. The show is so popular that Jason Alexander’s newest sitcom, Listen Up, is based on Kornheiser’s life. Now, PTI is a little more intelligent than Around the Horn. You might even hear an interview with a major star. Yet the show is hardly the Lincoln-Douglass debates. It’s not even the Kerry-Bush debates.

But that’s fine. ESPN is about entertainment. That’s why people watch. It’s okay if these shows aren’t exactly Emmy-caliber. If you want profound sports commentary, you’ve got newspapers, books, and even ESPN’s Sunday roundtable show, called Sports Reporters.

Entertainment is entertainment, and we can’t expect (or want) ESPN to be too serious. Yet there is a problem with TV: egomania. It’s happening more and more, and it’s annoying. Does anyone care that Woody Paige is friends with D-list celebrities? Or that Around the Horn panelist Jay Mariotti is on TV everyday, and probably lives at his Chicago Sun-Times office? One of the oldest rules in journalism is “to report the news, not make it.” Yet athletes are becoming more and more affected by what they see on television. Everyday we hear about a superstar “responding to his critics.” And who are those critics? Guys on ESPN, arguing with each other.

This is not exactly new — back in the 1970’s, you had self-promoter Howard Cosell. But he was only one man. In his day, there was no ESPN; no army of reporters yelling at each other. Entertainment is cool, but the focus needs to be on athletes — not the talking heads.

Ted Nyman is a Sun staff writer. Fast Times will appear every other Tuesday this semester.

Archived article by Ted Nyman