ESPN: Man’s Necessary Evil

How much of a role does ESPN play in the sports scandals it frequently covers?

We’ve all been there when the guy who hasn’t spoken the whole night finally breaks his silence. It can be quite startling. I mean, it’s not like you were totally unaware of his presence, but until then he’s almost like a part of the background, so that when he finally does speak up there’s a hair-raising split second where you feel as though the couch is voicing its own opinion about the matter at hand.

That’s not exactly how I felt when I read that ESPN would be suing Ohio State, but it’s close. Sure, it seems innocuous enough that people would want the Buckeyes to release more of the damaging emails that have rattled their program over the past several months, but this lawsuit was ESPN’s doing, not the NCAA’s. Their intention is no doubt to keep the story mine open for as long as possible, former OSU coach Jim Tressel being the crown jewel in the recent spattering of NCAA football coaches acting like Tammany Hall.

The Fourth Estate is kind of like the fourth wall in that sometimes you forget it’s even there. Until the lawsuit was filed the network had been nothing more than a source of information, watching the clash from high up in the stands and delivering commentary. This lawsuit, though, solidified ESPN as a part of the drama in its own right: the network had made its way down from the press box and onto the field of play. What’s next? I thought. Erin Andrews taking over as quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings? Or Stuart Scott competing for World’s Strongest Man?

The various 24-hour news networks tussle over the (possibly dubious) honor of “most trusted.” In the world of sports however, there’s no comparison: ESPN is king. Fox Sports is better known for its regional coverage of sporting events, and Versus barely registers viewership and revenue when compared with either. At last count, four couples have named children after the network, though, to be fair, one of them was pronounced “Espen.”

Given how far-reaching the ESPN family has become—it now counts offspring like ESPN3 and ESPNU—the length of its mostly unchallenged reign is impressive. But expansion introduces new tribulations of its own. Keeping the mega-network’s engine running is probably a fairly simple task in, say, October when college and professional football are in full swing, along with the World Series. Early July though? Not so much.

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Throughout the summer months, it feels like half the stories on SportsCenter and Pardon the Interruption have to do with a second-tier athlete’s DUI, steroid allegations, lockouts, or an iconic coach who may or may not owe some of his success to cheating. Major sports scandals are, by the network’s own admission, a huge boost to ratings. Consider that every summer for the past several years has seen a college football scandal—usually over transactions that amounted to no more than a couple thousand dollars (compared to the ten million dollar-plus budgets of major NCAA football programs).

The ramp-up to next summer’s big scandal has already begun. At this point, the stories coming out of the University of Oregon’s dealings with corrupt recruiter Will Lyles have received attention comparable to the opening rounds of a grand slam tennis tournament. Expect coverage to hit its full stride sometime after the end of this upcoming season.

All of this is not to generate contempt for ESPN, nor suggest that the network is a blood-sucking vampire squid in the world of sports. If the President can count on daily CIA and FBI briefings, the average Joe can likewise count on his ESPN daily roundup. I for one don’t know what I would do without SportsCenter. And yeah, they have gone out of their way to create publicity that they can profit off of, but it’s not like they hacked into murder victims’ phones or anything. Still, let’s not forget Espen’s stake in all this.

—Photo WDPG Share/Flickr

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  1. THE DECISION.

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