Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Infotainment Comes to Sports

By Brad Oremland

Which channel is this? What website am I on?

Have you caught yourself asking questions like that recently? It seems like legal experts get more face time on ESPN these days than coaches and GMs do. With each passing year, less and less of SportsCenter is devoted to game highlights, while more and more of it is devoted to off-field transgressions.

Of course, this isn't just ESPN. It's easy to pick on because ESPN is a huge source of sports media, sometimes a news story itself, but it's far from the only guilty party. When did we start being more interested in what athletes do away from the game than what they do in competition?

What were the biggest sports stories of the last 12 months? Alex Rodriguez busted for steroids. Tiger Woods allegedly clubbed with a 9-iron for extra-marital affairs. Ben Roethlisberger suspended for too many off-field troubles. And the Saints won the Super Bowl. It's been hard at times to tell the difference between Sports Illustrated and Us Weekly, ESPN.com from TMZ. Why does it even matter what these guys do in their free time?

First of all, let's recognize that those are three separate incidents. There's a difference between getting busted for marijuana and getting busted for HGH. Rodriguez's use of PEDs is relevant because it was done to affect what happens on the diamond — it relates directly to the game. If Rodriguez were an accountant or a hairdresser instead of a professional athlete, he wouldn't have used PEDs, and it wouldn't matter to the public even if he had. Use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs is, sadly, an important sports issue, because it affects the games themselves, and it perceives how we affect the sport. Public perception of widespread PED-use has harmed baseball, turning fans cynical, and in some cases, turning them against the game altogether.

PEDs, for better or worse, have an obvious link to sports, and while the headlines should probably be a little smaller, it's a relevant, even important story when someone like A-Rod gets caught with a needle in his butt. Roethlisberger's tawdry tales probably aren't a sports story. They're celebrity gossip. However, they became a sports story, when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell chose to suspend Roethlisberger for the beginning of the 2010 season. That's a major headline if you follow the NFL: a two-time Super Bowl-winning QB, in his prime, missing six games. If he missed that because of an injury, it would be big news. If he misses it due to a suspension, same thing, maybe even bigger news simply because it's unusual and preventable.

SI.com's Frank Deford recently wrote a brief column questioning why it matters what athletes do in their free time. Deford is a superb writer, whose work I consistently enjoy, but whom I believe is wrong in asserting that Big Ben's suspension was misguided or that athlete's off-field (or off-court, or whatever) transgressions should be ignored.

Behavior like Roethlisberger's damages the game. When athletes are arrested, or repeatedly charged with inappropriate behavior, it affects public perception of the sport. Around the time of Michael Jordan's second retirement, the NBA lost a number of fans who were turned off by the perceived "thuggish" behavior of players. I'm not endorsing that view, but when fans perceive a team (like the Portland Trailblazers or the Cincinnati Bengals) or even an entire sport as being full of miscreants, it harms that league. The Commissioner has a responsibility to protect the owners and grow the league, and to some extent, it's appropriate for someone like Goodell to step in when a player or coach makes negative headlines of a criminal nature. That kind of proactive response helps prevent the sport from becoming marginalized, restricted to the few die-hards who can tolerate its real or perceived tendency to cross social and legal boundaries.

Contrast the NFL's steroid policy with MLB's. This week the NFL announced that the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year, Brian Cushing, faces a four-game suspension for PEDs. That's an important suspension, and it's generated some headlines, but the league announces it and moves on. For years, MLB didn't even have a steroid policy. A four-game suspension is nothing, but by taking action, the NFL lets fans know that it's addressing the problem. By suspending a Ben Roethlisberger or a Pac-Man Jones, the NFL communicates to fans that only law-abiding — or at least reasonably well-behaved — citizens are welcome in the league. Precisely because these suspensions generate headlines, fans recognize that the league is doing something, and it affects public perception of the sport.

The one huge story that is barely sports, that belongs in the trashy tabloids rather than the sports pages, is the Tiger Woods drama. Yes, if you think golf is a sport, Woods' decision to take some time away from the tour is a legitimate sports story. The rest of it? No. It's celebrity gossip. I have an acquaintance who isn't a big sports fan, but who knows that I am. Every time I've seen him in the last six months, he's asked me what I think about Woods. Every time, I tell him I haven't been following the story. It's not sports. In fact, I think his obsession with the Woods story — and it is an obsession for this guy — is sick. It's unhealthy and weird.

But I'm not here to condemn this person, or the tabloids and the gossip mags. There are people who enjoy them, many more than there are pure sports fans. What's problematic is the blurring between the two arenas. Media organizations in all fields treat celebrity news as a big deal. This is true even of supposedly serious news outlets like CNN and Newsweek. In fact, more troubling than the TMZ-ing of ESPN is the unfortunate trend of treating politicians like celebrities.

Whether it's Barack Obama or Sarah Palin, U.S. political headlines for the last 18 months have been dominated by figures known more for what they've said than what they've done, who are romanticized or villainized with little focus on the issues that actually matter. I find this terrifying. Sports is fundamentally an entertainment business, and if it regularly intersects with the world of celebrity gossip, that's annoying. When we start treating politicians as celebrities, focusing on their personal lives rather than their public ones, that's dangerous.

People delude themselves into believing that by watching the news they're educating themselves, keeping up on current events. But how many people who regularly watch the news could tell you what happened in Madagascar and Sri Lanka last year? How many of them can name all the U.S. Supreme Court justices, or half the members of the Senate, or half a dozen foreign heads of state? Who are you more likely to see on the evening news, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie or Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton?

The same thing is happening in sports. Tiger Woods hasn't won a major in two years, and golf doesn't particularly lend itself to highlights. But who's gotten more time on SportsCenter this year, Tiger or ... hell, pick someone. Drew Brees? Roger Federer? Any basketball player this side of Kobe, LeBron, and maybe Dwight Howard? Any baseball player, period? Flip on ESPN, and you're more likely to learn about Tiger's salacious misdeeds than about the positive accomplishments of athletes who are actually active.

How about Roethlisberger? The Steelers missed the playoffs, so he hasn't played since January 3rd. Has any football player gotten more coverage this year than Big Ben? I guess maybe Tim Tebow and Sam Bradford, maaaybe Ndamukong Suh or Drew Brees. Roethlisberger's former teammate, Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes, got traded and suspended, but he hasn't gotten a fraction of the coverage Ben has, because smoking green isn't a tawdry story. If you tuned in to the latest Roethlisberger update because the prospect of a celebrity going to jail is interesting or exciting, you're following a celebrity gossip story, not a sports piece. If you're tuning in for the sexual aspect, you're a very sick person, because this story involves accusations of sexual assault. If you were really just interested in whether or not he got suspended, you wasted an awful lot of time on the days of Big Ben speculation when you could have just waited until the suspension was actually announced.

If none of those apply to you, you were caught in the crossfire. Maybe you're a sports fan, looking for sports stories and highlights, and instead of learning whose power play is falling apart or who's hitting well against lefties, you hear about who's been sleeping around and who hangs out at the wrong clubs. This even applies to former athletes. Lawrence Taylor. Mike Tyson. O.J. Simpson. We're sacrificing NBA and NHL playoff highlights, Indian Wells coverage, Machida vs. Shogun, Opening Day in MLB, the Giro d'Italia ... to find out exactly how skeezy Roethlisberger and Taylor are? To learn about Georgia's sexual assault statutes? To hear how many women Tiger has bedded? Which channel is this? What website am I on?

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