ESPN on Mayweather: the good, the bad and the ugly

ESPN’s Outside the Lines devoted a full half hour show on Friday to documenting Floyd Mayweather’s serial, criminal abuse of women:

It was an excellent segment, detailing his multiple convictions and despicable actions, exposing the shameful conduct of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, which has the tools to discipline fighters and deny them licensure but refuses to lay a glove on their golden calf and highlighting Mayweather’s own utter lack of contrition for any of his past actions. During the in-studio discussion afterwards, Jemele Hill was especially thoughtful and insightful in weighing the issues at stake.

(Also worth reading – Deadspin’s detailed account last year of Mayweather’s history).

On their show yesterday, Sarah Spain and Prim Siripipat also had an excellent discussion of Mayweather’s history of violence and the conundrum that sports fans when weighing our desire for entertainment and escape against whatever moral lines we draw in condoning or condemning conduct by those in the sports world. Spain is not a Janet-come-lately to this issue, it’s worth noting. This piece from last fall, before the May 2 Mayweather-Pacquiao fight was arranged, explains why Mayweather fights don’t deserve fans’ dollars.

All of this is representative of what we might call the good ESPN.

The bad ESPN has also been on display in connection with the upcoming bout. In what we might call its more benign form, this “bad” ESPN has been manifest in the string of folks who’ve appeared on Mike and Mike and other ESPN programming the past few weeks who’ve expressed their excitement about the highly anticipated tilt. It’s not a crime to be excited about a boxing match. But there is a striking disconnect in the flood of attention that domestic violence has received in recent months in the sports world  on the one hand and, on the other, the mania surrounding the long-awaited Mayweather-Pacquiao match. It’s been particularly odd this week, as the NFL imposed a 10-game suspension on star defensive lineman Greg Hardy, who was convicted on domestic violence charges last summer, but subsequently had that conviction overturned. Because at the same time that there has been a lot of passionate commentary in support of Hardy’s suspension, before Friday’s OTL report on Mayweather, the network had given little to no recent attention to the fighter’s long and disturbing record outside the ring.

The less benign version of the “bad,” if you will, was in the promotional programming that ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith did this past week for the upcoming fight. Smith engaged in what Deadspin’s described as a series of “puff pieces” playing up Mayweather’s extravagant lifestyle and side-stepping any attempt to address the more serious charges against ‘Money.’ Awful Announcing saw in this aspect of ESPN”s coverage further evidence of the World Wide Leader’s basic “identity crisis.”

The ugly ESPN in all this has been Stephen A. himself. The pro-Mayweather propaganda he shot this week isn’t the lowest low to which he’s sunk in this context. As first reported by Sports Grid a couple of weeks ago, that distinction is reserved for Smith’s disgraceful discussion of Mayweather’s transgressions on his main ESPN platform, First Take. While Smith said he couldn’t “condone” Mayweather’s behavior, he went out of his way to pooh-pooh it. When host/facilitator Cari Champion characterized Mayweather in stronger terms, Smith responded: “You’re a woman, you should feel that way.”

When Champion pressed her point – “I have a problem with who he is” – Smith dug in further: “that’s fine. i’m saying that her position is clear. because she’s a woman and this is how she feels how he conducts himself. i am a boxing fan. I’m thinking — when i talk out Mayweather versus Pacquiao, I’m thinking about two dudes strictly in the boxing ring.”

Stephen A. was suspended by ESPN for a week last year for some poorly conceived remarks he made about Rice’s attack on his now-wife Janay Palmer Rice. His comments to Champion suggest that what he said about Rice last year were not just a one-off misstep, but indicative of a more fundamental failure to grasp the seriousness of the problem of violence against women.

But Smith is also being a hypocrite here. Because on plenty of occasions, he’s perfectly happy to sermonize about an athlete’s off-field conduct, exposing as bullshit his claim here that it’s misguided emotion to judge Mayweather for the same.

To take just one example, it’s worth recalling Smith’s harangue against Marshawn Lynch at Super Bowl time for the horrible crime of…wait for it…being taciturn with the media. Smith went so far as to suggest that Lynch’s media dealings were – I’m not making this up – the very embodiment of everything that is wrong with black youth and the “inner city” today.

In other words, to sum up, when we speak of Mayweather, we should really only talk about him as a fighter, and only a female, with her parochial ideas about domestic violence, would insist on inserting such irrelevancies into the conversation. But when it comes to a guy who doesn’t love talking to the media – well, that’s just too great a crime to let pass.

Ugly.

 Update: Deadspin’s Iron Mike Gallego has more on Stephen A.’ desultory record in this matter. IronMikeGallego, author of the linked piece here, notes that ESPN gave more prominent placement, online and onair, to Smith’s shilling of Mayweather than it did to the outstanding reporting of John Barr for OTL.

Olbermann called Friday for a boycott of the fight in a larger commentary about violence against women.