I love or have loved certain things about ESPN for almost 20 years. Before the 1994 MLB strike, it was SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight. Since the mid-2000s it’s been Cold Pizza/First Take.
This piece by James Andrew Miller, Steve Eder, and Richard Sandomir exposes the power ESPN has over the world of college football and touches on the problems with churn, the idea that ESPN and other entertainment companies with journalistic sides of the house have real conflicts of interest: Do they report news or do they make it? In either case, they profit from it.
A few days ago, Robert Lipsyte, the new ESPN ombudsman with credibility up and down both arms, talked about churn in reference to another issue entirely: What would happen if ESPN refused to call Washington, DC’s NFL franchise by its racist nickname? This morning, Charles Pierce, a writer at Grantland (the ESPN-owned virtual cigar bar of sports and pop-culture) gave us a glimpse of what such a stance might look like in his coverage of last night’s game between Washington and Philadelphia.
Churn. It’s here and has been forever. In ESPN’s context, I have no problem with Pierce’s journalistic activism, or with the basic conceit of a show like First Take. I have more of an issue with the programming side of ESPN (the most profitable appendage in the entire Disney fleet of octopi) acting as set-up man for the network’s journalistic closers. If the NYT piece is accurate, I also have a problem with the degree to which ESPN calls the shots in college football specifically. Add to that the fact that ESPN just pulled out of a deal to co-produce a documentary with PBS about CTE. Most detractors have said the decision was because of the network’s important business ties to the NFL. In light of Miller/Eder/Sandomir, that seems incredibly naive. It’s because of ESPN’s de facto ownership of the college game. The general public knowing more about CTE and its relationship to the kind of head trauma encountered in all levels of football isn’t just bad for Roger Goodell’s business. It’s a potential death sentence for the feeder systems of the amateur game, and, by the shortest of extensions, ESPN’s and Disney’s bread and butter. Yes, Disney doesn’t just need for your children to love Cars and Brave and Doc McStuffins. It also needs them to play football.
A few nights ago, Keith Oblermann ranted about churn on his new ESPN2 show. On the one hand, sports coverage shouldn’t be in the business of making something out of nothing. For Keith, the supposed controversy surrounding Rex Ryan’s decision to play Mark Sanchez in the final minutes of a meaningless pre-season game was an invention of the media. On the other hand, though, shouldn’t we roundly criticize an entity like ESPN for the craven journalistic compromise implicit in their PBS debacle? Journalists and journalism outlets do make news, they don’t simply uncover it. The things that happen in ivory towers or Biogenesis clinics aren’t news until they are reported. They’re not news until someone like Olbermann holds them up in contrast to our collective norms and expectations.
And then again.
In many, many ways, we might call ESPN a simple cypher for “the general media, PR arm of the military-industrial complex” and “college football” a code for “war, division, and inequality.”
It’s too bad we don’t hear more about that.