ESPN’s unreality-based coverage

Karl Rove's got nothing on the boys from Bristol

One of the main takeaways from last week’s election was that conservatives were living in a bubble of delusion, convinced right up until the returns started coming in that Mitt Romney would swamp President Obama in the electoral college. The candidate himself was said to be gobsmacked that he lost, and so decisively. This detachment from reality was mainly the result of relying on conservative media, largely Fox News, which not only told viewers what they desperately wanted to hear, truth be damned, but attempted to warp the actual state of things by its coverage.

Lately, one gets a similar feeling watching ESPN cover sports. Nothing so important as the presidency is at stake, but the same feeling of displacement exists. Take the craziness last weekend involving the Los Angeles Lakers and their head coach. On Friday morning, ESPN’s NBA reporter Marc Stein wrote that Brown would have an upcoming six-game home stand to prove his worth and keep his job. That got bounced around the various platforms for a few hours, until the Lakers announced that, no, Brown was fired immediately.

Speculation immediately turned to former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, he of the eleven championship rings and the Zen Master vibe. ESPN went all in on the idea that Jackson would return for a third time to Hollywood, to do what he does best: guide a team of superstars to the promised land. ESPN’s squadron of reporters, pundits, talk-show hosts, game announcers, former players—even the dude who empties the trash cans in the Bristol campus cafeteria—all had an opinion on Jackson’s return, what it would mean, how it would work, what demands he would make. Jackson himself was reported to be “ready to take the job if offered on Monday,” according to the omnipresent Bottom Line tracker of scores and news.

Only it turns out the Lakers weren’t into a third marriage with the 67-year-old Jackson, especially after Jackson turned early negotiations into a power play aimed at humiliating his nemesis, Lakers vice president Jim Buss. Late Sunday night, LA blindsided ESPN, and thus most sports fans, who rely on the network and its many outlets for news, by hiring former Knicks and Suns coach Mike D’Antoni.

There were plenty of signs this might happen—first and foremost, the enmity that existed between Buss (son of Lakers owner Jerry Buss) and Jackson. Despite this, and D’Antoni’s close relationship with Lakers guard Steve Nash, and the fact that Kobe Bryant grew up in Italy worshipping D’Antoni and the high-tempo style he perfected as a player and coach in Milan, his candidacy was dismissed by most of ESPN’s coverage, mainly because, it seemed, he wasn’t as sexy a story as Phil Jackson was. He didn’t fit as cozily into ESPN’s worldview of celebrity meshing seamlessly into sport; it’s the same thinking that causes the network to foist Tim Tebow on the public at every opportunity, even though he hardly plays.

To be fair, others were reporting/assuming Jackson would be the next coach. But ESPN was by far the most high-profile. Increasingly, sports fans are forced to live in an information bubble shaped by ESPN’s version of reality. Fortunately, the games themselves, like election results, cannot be preordained or spun or focus-grouped.

Like Mitt Romney on the Wednesday after the landslide, Jackson was reported to be “stunned” by the fact he didn’t get the job.

Wonder where he got that idea?

Fast breaks

ESPN splashed out a “ridonkulous” amount of money (five years, $17 million) to hire Rick Reilly away from Sports Illustrated a few years back, a move that has worked out about as well as Mike Brown did in LA. His print work, which always slouched toward shtick, has failed to impress, and he simply isn’t a worthwhile television presence. Despite experiments like having Reilly host SportsCenter, no one is pining for more Rick on the TV.

One way Reilly might still live up to his contract by playing to his strength: he is actually a talented and underrated reporter. (Remember in 2001 when he broke the news that Michael Jordan was considering coming back a second time? He was pilloried for that story, but it turned out to be spot on.) He seems to know it, too, which is why he was so insistent Monday night that ESPN host Stuart Scott credit him with breaking the news on Twitter that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was en route to the hospital with a serious shoulder injury.

There were three snags, however. First, anyone watching Monday Night Football knew Big Ben was in bad shape—he wasn’t playing, after all, and ESPN showed him leaving the sideline and heading down the ramp away from the field. Reilly added nothing of substance to the obvious conclusion that Roethlisberger was hurt. Second, several others, including Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Dejan Kovacevic, had tweeted the news long before Reilly. And third, when ESPN threw coverage back from Bristol to Pittsburgh, where Scott, Reilly, and others were covering the game, viewers were accidentally treated to the sight of Reilly telling Scott to make sure to give Reilly all the credit (which drew a hilarious “C’mon, dude” stare from Steve Young).

ESPN keeps telling sports fans that Rick Reilly is worth reading/watching/listening to. Sorry, guys, some of us are just not that far inside the bubble.

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Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta. Tags: , , ,