Is the tail wagging the dog in sports?

ESPN’s out-sized role in college athletics

By Silas Lott, Columnist

MOUNT BERRY, Ga. – What is the role of sports media? Is it to inform the everyday TV-watching sports fan? Is it to meaningfully address issues and questions that sports raise? Or, is it merely and only to entertain?

NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick used the 2016 season to protest what he sees as race-based policing by kneeling during the national anthem before games. His motivation came from the events of the previous summer, which included multiple shootings and riots involving police. So Kaepernick took a knee to call attention, including sports media attention, to fundamental problems threatening the values of democracy in the hopes of sparking discussion about ways to address these problems. It didn’t work.

With every appearance comes a disappearance, and in this case, some critically important questions disappeared in the sideshow about proper behavior by professional football players during the playing of a national anthem.

Sports media had a prime opportunity to matter. To inform. To foster debate about what justice might look like in a country that professes to hold to that ideal so fervently. This would have been the ideal path for media to take. Instead, sports media’s talking heads gave us a critique of who took a knee and how people were reacting to those who took a knee, who wasn’t taking a knee and how people were reacting to those who weren’t taking a knee. Little to no mention was made of the reasons for the protests. They disappeared.

Sports media let us down, a reminder that the first letter in ESPN stands for “entertainment.”

SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Michael Sam

Similarly, Missouri’s Michael Sam, an All-American defensive end, gave sports media an opportunity to meaningfully address LGBT issues when he told the world that he is gay. Instead, the debate focused on the implications an openly gay man in a NFL lockerroom. Thus, the talking heads looked more at his personal life than his playing ability.

Prior to his announcement, Sam had been projected as a second round draft pick. He fell to the seventh and final round. He said after the draft that he had been excited to see headlines such as, “First Openly Gay Player Drafted.” Instead, he encountered headlines like, “Sam Kisses Boyfriend.”

Though he led the St. Louis Rams in sacks during the pre-season, the team cut him. Sam didn’t openly blame media coverage for his less-than-full opportunity to make an NFL roster, but what evidence is there of any other reason to have been cut? Did he prove to actually be a distraction, or is that simply the convenient media narrative we were fed? Where is the evidence?

Is ESPN too influential in college sports, in service to goals that often are at odds with the mission and purpose of colleges and universities? Of course it is. ESPN’s lucrative TV deals have universities such as Louisville heeding the network’s every beck and call, and they have institutions such as Maryland and Texas A&M jumping conferences in the hot pursuit of ever more money.

ESPN has even gone so far as buying up the rights to hundreds of college football games it has no intention of ever televising, just to keep those games out of the hands of rival networks and, as a byproduct, out of the living rooms of the adoring fans of the schools and football teams affected. They’re paying for games in order not to show them.

This hyper-control gives ESPN the power to tell the stories it wants us to know and to sweep the rest under the proverbial rug.

So what? What can we do in response?

We can start by calling sports media on the sleights of hand in disappearing the big issues and instead buzzing about subsidiary questions that in the end don’t matter all that much. Whether an NFL quarterback drops a knee or not isn’t going to change lives. Whether race-based policing is allowed to continue in places like Ferguson, Missouri or Oakland, California – this in fact is a life or death question.

Why is Kaepernick risking his professional fortunes (and a beer to the head)? Why is Sam’s sexual orientation foregrounded? How much is ESPN basically paying teams to switch conferences, alter their schedules, or host “Game Day”?

As viewers, we need to demand more. As long as we passively accept the reality we are presented, we will continue to give ESPN a free pass to distract, demean and deny.

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