We Have Met the Enemy, and Surprisingly, He’s Not ESPN

Nick Martens wonders why media overexposure so reliably turns sports fans against star players.


Even if you don’t follow sports, lately you’ve probably been hearing the name Carmelo Anthony, a professional basketball player who was traded from one team to another earlier this week. The reason this piece of news you don’t care about penetrated your consciousness is that for the past nine months or so, the NBA media has been swirling with rumors about this trade, so its completion burst the seams of its niche and washed over the mass culture in a wave of relief. As for people who do follow the NBA, lots of them became so sick of this story that they began to dislike not just the rumors, but also Carmelo Anthony himself.

It’s the same reason people stopped liking Brett Favre even before his numerous sex scandals: media overexposure. And a similar fate befell LeBron James, who was not criticized so much for leaving his home state’s franchise, but for doing it in the form of an hour-long special on ESPN.

What’s odd about these players is that any dislike of them is completely unrelated to their ability to play sports. Anthony and James are among the best NBA players, and Favre strung together a couple banner seasons in the midst of his retirement drama (this is pre-deviant Favre, remember). Fans object to these players because they seem to crave the attention they receive.

But their overexposure is out of their control and ultimately not their fault. The media itself is responsible for creating the attention in the first place. And since we’re talking about sports here, by “media” of course I just mean “ESPN.”

Employees of the sports news giant readily admit their numbers spike whenever they cover Brett Favre; the tribulations of James’s “decision” proved so enthralling that the network dedicated an hour in primetime to it; and because viewers responded so strongly to whispers about LeBron’s move, ESPN sent an army of “insiders” to gather the same sort of dirt on Anthony’s trade. Can we blame players for responding when cameras and microphones are constantly shoved in their faces, when their every remark is repeated to reporters by agents and acquaintances, when any comment expressing any personality is fed into the ever-chruning sports opinion cycle? Players may enjoy or take advantage of the spotlight when it’s on them, but in the end they have no say where the spotlight points.

But I also don’t think ESPN is to blame for turning overexposed atheletes into villains for some fans. Sports hold little actual significance in the broader culture, so ESPN shouldn’t really be held to any journalistic ideals. They exist, like any other entertainment-centric TV network, to get high ratings. Tabloid-esque coverage of high-profile atheletes has proven to generate such ratings, so the network would be acting irresponsibly if it changed its behavior. And it’s certainly not the fault of people who are genuinely interested in every little detail of these high-drama, low-content stories. After all, if you really really care about Brett Favre’s potential retirement, ESPN’s coverage has been great for you.

There don’t, however, seem to be that many sports fans who earnestly follow these tabloid sports stories. By far, the majority complains about them. And, paradoxically, the people who hate the stories most are also most to blame for their existence. Because if you complain about their overexposure, that means you’re not only paying attention, but you’re also exposing them further. (Likewise, Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton are only famous because people complain so much about them being famous for no reason. Also, sex tapes.) ESPN doesn’t care whether you like what they put on SportsCenter, they only care that you watch. Like in that old Simpsons Halloween episode with the living billboards, the only way you can stop ESPN from turning American sports coverage into Us Weekly is: just don’t look. Every time you tweet about how much you hate Carmelo, you just guarantee that the next Carmelo will be followed even closer.

Photo by Tavarua

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.