Obviously, production on this site, such as it is, has slowed dramatically the past few months. One reason is that other writing, mainly a book project, has occupied more of my mental space recently. Another, I guess, is the ebb and flow of motivation for something that I do in my spare time.
But there’s an additional factor I’ve been thinking about. ESPN is a huge, sprawling empire, with one bazillion hours of programming and content to pick through every day. And there are, as a consequence, at least half a bazillion things to criticize, offenses to feel aggrieved by, and so forth.
But a primary reason I started blogging about sports media a decade ago, and then picked up here in 2013 was an enduring frustration with the entire framing of sports discourse, to use a high falutin’ term. The most obvious problem, to my mind, has been the handling of race, which stems most immediately from the very basic structural fact that a mostly white press corps is providing around-the-clock coverage to a world in which a very high proportion of participants – well over half in football and basketball – is black. All of the problems of race in our society and specifically how white folks try to make sense of the “color line” are refracted through the prism of sports. That’s both an opportunity for real thinking about how America talks about and treats race – its sins of commission and omission – and an endless well of aggravation from which to draw.
Race isn’t the only opportunity sports affords for deeper reflection. The treatment of women specifically, and gender more broadly , of class, of the rights, privileges and responsibilities of the American plutocracy all provide the subtext, if not the directly manifest fodder for the vast swaths of time sports media need to cover. So there’s lots of raw material for scrutinizing the many ways that well-paid commentators try to paint with brush strokes wholly inadequate to the reality of the social, cultural and political landscape they’re trying to color in. For channeling some of my own frustration about the limits of our national conversation, our compromised political system, and of the larger injustices that pervade American life, while trying to make *something* useful out of all the time I spend consuming sports media, what better way than by hectoring ESPN for some of its many shortcomings?
But something has happened along the way. ESPN, to the extent that one can characterize anything that big and sprawling, has gotten better. Sure, there’s plenty to piss and moan about. But a group of newer voices and the elevation of some older ones has changed the face, the feel and the sound of the company in some pretty important ways. Consider that the two major day time national radio shows, after Mike and Mike in the morning, are Dan LeBatard and Bomani Jones, two of the very best and brightest the network has to offer. In addition to actually talking about sports – which they are supposed to do, after all – both offer highly intelligent, thoughtful commentary on a range of issues, including race. Indeed, it’s become a point of pride with LeBatard, who is white, to highlight the frequency with which his audience bemoans his insistence on diverging from talking about the games because he mainly seems more interested in larger social issues. Jones, who is black, weaves in discussion of race more organically, perhaps a reflection of the fact that racism is an inherent part of his experience. In both cases (and the two do an afternoon TV show together with LeBatard’s father), the conversation (a word LeBatard uses all the time) is an admirably elevated one.
Yesterday encapsulated nicely the shift I’m describing. LeBatard interviewed the pre-eminent writer Ta Nehisi-Coates, pulitzer prize winning author and MacArthur Genius grant recipient. Coates is a sports fan, but that’s not what he’s known for, of course. The 12-minute interview focused little on sports, per se. There was a discussion of the obligation of athletes – particularly black athletes – to speak out at moments like these (Coates says it’s great if they want to, but certainly isn’t their job) and other tangentially sports-related matters. But most of the interview was a platform for Coates to provide perspective on the recent shootings and the longer-term prospects for coming to terms with the racial tensions that afflict America. Coates has been on before and Dan essentially pleaded that they couldn’t get enough of him. So, expect him to be on again.
LeBatard fills the slot vacated by Colin Cowherd and Jones has slid into LeBatard’s old afternoon spot. I’ve said enough about Cowherd over the years, so let’s just say that if you’re evaluating whether ESPN’s collective capacity for insightful understanding of how sports reflects larger realities, the trade of Cowherd for Jones is on the order of swapping Jim Fregosi for Nolan Ryan (which the California Angels managed to pull off in a heist from the Mets in 1971). Add the very good Jemele Hill (the highest profile black woman sports commentator in the country) and Michael Smith (also African American), of the His&Hers show, and the daytime ESPN lineup looks and sounds very different than it did a decade ago (so does the evening, with a special shout-out to the highly entertaining and smart Jalen and Jacoby, featuring Fab Five alum Jalen Rose and David Jacoby).
But the changes in the weekday schedule aren’t the only significant ones. ESPN radio on the weekend is where the women are. The featured day time show on Saturdays, the trifecta, features Kay Fagan (who wrote a book about coming out as a lesbian while a college athlete), Sarah Spain and the estimable Jane McManus, a respected long-time journalist. It’s not that I like everything about their show. But the tone and focus are refreshing in the extreme. On one recent show, Spain teased the upcoming segment by saying they were going to discuss “fragile masculinity.” At moments like that, I think to myself: “what is there left for me to talk about?”
On Sundays, these days, the midday slot is patrolled by former Cowherd wing-woman Michelle Beadle and Ramona Shelburne, a long-time beat reporter for the Lakers. Beadle is terrific – a highly intelligent, talented broadcaster. I don’t think Shelburne is at her level, but whatever. The point is that the the casual experience of turning on the network feels very different than it did not so long ago.
More broadly, the battle on some of the issues I care about the most has been joined. When an athlete cashes in on a big free agent payday, there are plenty of people engaged in the same old one-sided athlete bashing. But there are now lots of voices prepared to point out the hypocrisy of owners crying “loyalty” when they’d abandon a city whenever the price is right. When athletes do take a political stand, in addition to the predictable critics, more and more voices on ESPN, and in sports media broadly, say “bravo.” The company line when it comes to gay rights and transgender rights is undeniably liberal. No one need accuse of me of being a network apologist. The ratio of critical words to kind words on this blog remains approximately a million to one. But the changes I’m describing are real. They’re not exclusive to ESPN. But if ESPN is a weather vane of sorts, it’s pretty clear which way the wind is blowing on some of the major issues of the day. In this context, it’s worth noting that the highest profile show on ESPN radio, Mike and Mike, is a substantially different one than was true a decade ago. That reflects, among other things, 1) profound cultural shifts in discussion of social issues like violence against women and gay rights, 2) and the receding of the 9/11 attacks, and all that has meant for sports coverage generally and the evolution of the two Mikes themselves.
(I’m leaving aside Outside the Lines, and the 30 for 30 documentary series, both of which have added greatly to ESPN’s image as a purveyor of edifying content. The recent OJ documentary – a five night, seven and a half hour examination of OJ in the context of American race relations over several decades – was a tour de force).
Maybe it’s age. Maybe it’s the larger storm clouds gathering over head, making it harder to take too seriously anything that pipes across a sports channel, while simultaneously wanting to appreciate sports for the welcome escape it is. Increasingly, I’m finding that the issues I’d raise amount to nitpicking, or harping on the same old targets. Outfits like Deadspin and Awful Announcing do what they do very well, and they continue to keep a close eye on ESPN, including in connection with the network’s ongoing conflict of interest in reporting on the NFL’s endemic health and safety problems. Kevin Draper of Deadspin, and Greg Howard, formerly so, are fantastic writers and incisive socio-political sports commentators The incomparable Dave Zirin remains hard at it, relentlessly and insightfully bringing a left political perspective to the sports universe. And all of them do it for a living.
I am not planning to close up shop here (lucky you!). But I am asking myself what it is that I can usefully contribute given this changing terrain. Turning on Mike and Mike and catching them in a “gotcha” moment isn’t inspiring me these days. Cowherd’s still out there on FS1, though when I’ve caught him these days, he sounds pretty mellow.
What’s (another) left sports media critic to do?
I’ll keep thinking.