When you get past your anger over the carnival barking, the race-baiting and a hockey goon named Skip Bayless who makes his living as a low-rent sports contrarian, you simply feel bad for the rank and file at ESPN.
Since the network suspended ESPN2 First Take panelist Rob Parker on Friday after his offensive comments about Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, I've spoken to a number of current and former ESPN employees who are tired of being associated with a program they believe is beneath the network.
"The issue is that it becomes ESPN and not First Take when people weigh in," one longtime ESPN staffer said. "They don't say, 'First Take said this or that.' It's, 'ESPN said this or that.' I don't wish to be lumped in with that nonsense."
"They have created a culture of this," another ESPN employee said. "The fact that they didn't remove it [Parker's comments about Griffin] from the re-air [the show repeats at 12 p.m. ET] proves their intent wasn't to do anything."
This weekend saw another round of negative press thanks to ESPN's lustful support of the cheap "embrace debate" concept. On Friday, the network said Parker had been "suspended until further notice" and that it was "conducting a full review." One can only hope the review is taken more seriously than the one Captain Louis Renault conducted of Rick's Caf� in Casablanca.
But don't expect a parade to be thrown in this column for ESPN management. Parker did what the ethos of the show requires, perfectly described on Sunday by the New York Post's Phil Mushnick as "worthless, senseless, obligatory bomb-throwing."
I emailed the company's PR arm on Sunday to ask a number of questions: Where did the review stand? Which staffers were leading it? When could viewers expect findings? Would the executive and coordinating producers for that show be interviewed as part of the review? How did ESPN define "further notice" regarding Parker?
Said an ESPN PR spokesperson: "A thorough review is ongoing and includes all appropriate personnel. When we have more information, we will share it."
Understandably, much of ESPN's focus this weekend was set on its handling of the tragedy in nearby Newtown, Conn., and that is commendable. But management has enabled this circus for years and it leads to rightful skepticism. ESPN happily brought in Parker, a summa cum laude graduate of the look-at-me school of media, and he delivered what he was asked to do. (Parker is liked by the show's producers, and people I spoke with called him a good employee.)
As far as how First Take works behind the scenes, the producers hold a meeting a couple of hours before air, and emails are often kicked around the night before to find subjects on which the debaters disagree.
"They brought on Rob for a reason -- he is confrontational," said a former ESPN staffer who worked at the network for years. "That is his style. They want debate and conflict and that can be a good thing, to force people to look at issues and force people to look at things. I know they get hammered a lot for making everything a racial topic, and sometimes it does go too far, but they do a good job of getting debate out there that people are shying away from because it is uncomfortable."
It's also creates the perception for ESPN's on-air staffers that the only way to get noticed by management is if you are skilled at disagreement. Think about that toxic message. Everyone I spoke with mentioned First Take's ratings, and this is what's kept this flotsam afloat. The show's first airing at 10 a.m. ET has averaged 378,000 viewers this quarter, according to ESPN, and it gets social media buzz almost daily for its provocative hosts. But every day, as the ESPN staffer above noted, the rank and file get lumped in with nonsense. That is what ESPN is currently embracing, and it makes you shake your head.
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the weekend.)
1. The tragedy in Newtown posed challenges for the NFL pregame shows in terms of how (and how much) to cover the story.
ESPN opened its Sunday Morning Countdown with a shot of the American flags at half-staff at Soldier Field in Chicago in memory of those who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Host Chris Berman lacks the gravitas for this kind of moment -- he's also an awkward teleprompter reader -- but his spirit was in the right place and he was heartfelt.
"There are few things unimaginable or unspeakable," Berman said. "The slaughter of innocent school children in their elementary school classrooms is one of them. Football, the holidays, all of it takes a backseat to what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on Friday morning. Twenty first-grade students ages 6 and 7, and six adults, as you know, are no longer with us. They were gunned down as they went about their morning excited about the coming of Christmas. ... It's very close to home for those of us at ESPN because Newtown is about 45 minutes down the road here in Connecticut."
Berman eventually moved viewers to NFL reporter Rachel Nichols, who conducted an excellent interview with Giants coach Tom Coughlin. "It's very difficult to get past the senseless killing of children, especially at that age," Coughlin said. "But there is tremendous evil in our world and it's just a sad, sad part of what we live with today." At the top of the show, which is where it should have been covered, ESPN found the right mix between football and a tragedy close to its corporate home. Well done.
1a. CBS's The NFL Today provided the best intersection between football and the news out of Newtown among the pregame shows. The first three minutes of the program were dedicated to the tragedy. "The nation is in mourning following Friday's profound tragedy in which 20 innocent Connecticut school children lost their lives, along with six adults who were devoted to educating, nurturing and caring for them," host James Brown said. "When something as unfathomable as this occurs, everything else is rendered insignificant."
Brown's opening words were accompanied by photos of grieving family members, townspeople and President Obama tearing -- a powerful tableau. The program then showed thoughtful tweets from NFL players such as Drew Brees, Robert Griffin III and J.J. Watt. That was followed by a close-up of the Giants' helmet with Sandy Hook's initials and the sneakers of Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, who honored a 6-year-old victim by writing "Jack Pinto My Hero" on his cleats. Analyst Boomer Esiason choked up in recounting the heroism of first-grade teacher Victoria Soto, who died in the attack. Analysts Bill Cowher and Dan Marino mentioned their own children and wished the best for the families. "It makes you sick to your stomach," Marino said.
After its abject failure covering the Kasandra Perkins-Jovan Belcher story two weeks ago, CBS has reminded viewers that it has the gravitas to cover events that go beyond cover twos and zone blitzes. Well done.
1b.Fox NFL Sunday opened its coverage with actor Jamie Foxx (who is promoting a new movie, Django Unchained) doing a taped piece on the importance of late-season football. The feature ended with the tagline: "Nobody does it like Fox." That was a remarkably tone-deaf lead-in given the news outside of football. Fox quickly shifted to a live shot of NFL players (Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers) walking into stadiums. Host Curt Menefee then thanked Foxx before acknowledging Newtown: "Our heartfelt condolences go out to Friday's shooting in Newtown, Connecticut," Menefee said. "The NFL today will have a moment of silence before each game which we will cover live for you, right here on Fox."
Menefee then mentioned the teams that were honoring Sandy Hook (viewers no doubt appreciated seeing the visual of the helmet decals) and segued to football. "Football almost seems insignificant right now, but hopefully our show and the NFL can provide a little escape for everybody today," Menefee said. The rest of the show was the usual fare, though football fans probably did not expect to see Menefee in a Cardinals jersey and full pads (designed to mock Arizona's quarterback issues) or South Korean singer Psy getting more free promotion on U.S. television.
1c. Here's the NFL Network on remembering the victims of the Newtown shooting.
1d. ESPN2's The Sports Reporters opened with host John Saunders by himself on the set acknowledging the victims in Newtown. The show immediately went to commercial after the opener. Very respectful.
1e. At the end of that show, panelist Mike Lupica offered a highly politicized take on gun control. I'm one who supports sports people delving into hot-button issues when done artfully (unlike Rob Parker's attempt). But Lupica's foray is curious given the repeated statements from ESPN PR that Lupica's political work as a columnist for the New York Daily News does not filter into his ESPN work. (ESPN PR has said previously: "He has a long-standing, pre-existing body of work outside of the sports realm, which predates his work on radio for us. We were aware of that before we hired him for a local sports radio show in New York and he doesn't bring any of that content to our radio outlet.")
The writer's on-air essay on The Sports Reporters obliterated that PR statement as well as ESPN management parsing where Lupica does this kind of commentary. ESPN should really own this, but when asked by SI.com about the discrepancy on Sunday, a spokesperson declined to comment.
2. John Kruk will join Dan Shulman and Orel Hershiser on Sunday Night Baseball next season after the departure of new Indians manager Terry Francona. It's an interesting move considering Kruk's candor as a studio analyst. In an interview with SI.com last week, Kruk said he's been asked by ESPN management over the years to do more games but he preferred working out of Bristol given he lived in New Jersey and did not have to fly to his workplace. But now that he and his family are moving to Florida, his job will require him to fly regardless.
"I'm 51 years old and lucky enough to get this opportunity," said Kruk, who has worked at ESPN since 2004. "I think after doing a couple of games they thought, Well, we might be able to get another manager to do this, but who knows how long they will stay. Maybe they are looking for more continuity in the booth with Orel and myself."
The three-person booth in baseball can be crowded for viewers, but Kruk believes he and Hershiser complement each other philosophically. "Orel is a technical, break-stuff-down type of a guy and deep thinker when he was pitching and I was none of that," Kruk said. "Of course I knew about mechanics because you have to if you hit ... but what I am kind of hoping I bring into the booth is a reaction. And Orel knows me well enough that if he says something that I don't agree with, I will react and vice versa. It will be fun and interesting."
Kruk's strength is his candor and he promises that won't change from the studio to the broadcast booth. "When I announced for the Phillies, I told them that I could not sugarcoat stuff," Kruk said. "If it's a dumb play, I have to say it's a dumb play. If you don't like it, then find someone else to do it.
With five years remaining on his contract, Kruk will be around ESPN even if the Sunday night gig does not work for the long term. "I think everything is a year-to-year deal," Kruk said. "Even if they told me I'd be here for 10 years, I still would approach it like I have to prove myself every year, or you get stagnant."
3. Larry Merchant's 35-year run as an HBO ringside commentator ended Saturday night with the Nonito Donaire-Jorge Arce junior featherweight title bout. "I find some poetic symmetry in going out on what's not a major event, but just another fight," Merchant told the Los Angeles Times last week. "That's what I do: Call the fights."
Merchant will still weigh in on boxing news and big fights in some capacity. I asked Sports Illustrated boxing editor Richard O'Brien what he would miss most about Merchant. "I'm going to miss Merchant's voice -- that increasingly tired, cranky, jaded voice that more often than not lately seemed to be quibbling with an HBO colleague or challenging a fighter in a post-bout interview," O'Brien said. "He could make me laugh and make me cringe, often in the same round. But I'm also going to miss -- and so is boxing -- Larry's perspective, both historical and of the moment. At his best, he was insightful and elegant and he never shilled. And that's the final thought I'll remember."
4. Loved Ian Eagle's call Friday night on the YES Network. After Nets guard Joe Johnson hit a game-winning shot at the buzzer to defeat the Pistons in double overtime, the cameras panned to comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who was in attendance. Without missing a beat, Eagle, the TV voice of the Nets, channeled his inner Seinfeld and dropped one of the lines of the year: "That was real! And that was spectacular!"
Some broadcasters have pre-planned lines, so I asked Eagle how it came about. "Believe it or not, it was completely spontaneous," said Eagle, also a longtime CBS Sports employee. "Obviously, I knew Jerry Seinfeld was there and a few thoughts swirled around my head when I first saw him early in the game. But I had no idea YES director John Wilson was going to show Jerry's reaction after the Joe Johnson game-winner. You always try to be in the moment when you're on the air and somehow that line popped into my head amidst the late-game drama. I was a big fan of the show and hopefully viewers enjoyed the reference. At the very least, it helped Teri Hatcher's Q-rating for one night."
5. Some details have floated out about Michelle Beadle's upcoming show on the NBC Sports Network. During the weekly Sports Media Weekly podcast hosted by Ken Fang and Keith Thibault, Beadle revealed that the show will be called The Crossover and will debut Super Bowl week. A co-host (likely male) will be named shortly. (When we've inquired about this show in the past, NBC Sports PR and executives have treated the request as if we were asking about Matt Lauer's relationship with Ann Curry or the site of UFO remains.)
Thankfully, Beadle herself was willing to break the silence, and we appreciate her courage in offering details that will promote a show for a network that needs viewers. She said The Crossover will debut in front of a live audience in New Orleans. The 30-minute show is scheduled to air daily in a late-afternoon time slot and will discuss the topics of the day in sports and social media. "It will be fun and lighthearted," Beadle said. "A mix of sports and pop culture."
6. CBS announcer Jim Nantz conducted a solid interview with Cowboys coach Jason Garrett during The NFL Today, including asking Garrett what he would say to people who questioned the team's support of defensive tackle Josh Brent, the driver in the alcohol-related death of teammate Jerry Brown. "Well, we certainly don't support drunk driving," Garrett said. "We think drunk driving is as bad a thing as you can do. ...That's not what we are supporting. We are supporting Josh Brent, the player on our team, the friend, the teammate. That's who we are supporting. Obviously, this is obviously a very, very challenging time for him and he has to somehow, some way get through each and every day understanding that he was part of this terrible tragedy."
6a.Fox NFL Sunday co-host Terry Bradshaw offered a strange evaluation of Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder this week, one week after citing his relationship with ESPN college football reporter Samantha Steele during his commentary (Bradshaw suggested that perhaps "the love bug" would help Ponder "step it up"). Said Bradshaw this week: "I'm not sure what's wrong with Ponder, but I'm sure it's hard to pronounce." Bradshaw made much more sense when he said Ponder doesn't have the "wow" factor or receiver weapons around him.
7. Among the memorable sports pieces this week:
? Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins, who wrote two books with Lance Armstrong, finally weighs in on her subject. Your reaction to the piece will depend on how you feel about Armstrong.
? The Wall Street Journal's Matthew Futterman examines why NFL ratings have dropped two percent from last year.
? Mashable's Sam Laird reviewed the biggest sports moments on Twitter, while Buzzfeed provides the 19 funniest sports-related tweets of 2012.
? The terrific Washington, D.C.-based writer Patrick Hruby, in a piece for Sports On Earth, makes a case for ending "sports welfare."
?This SI.com Peter Richmond piece on college hockey in North Dakota was really well done.
? Really enjoyed John Hollinger's farewell column for ESPN.com after the announcement that the Grizzlies had hired the writer to serve as vice president of basketball operations.
8. Facebook released its 2012 Year in Review last week, including the year's most discussed trends and stories on the social network service. Not surprisingly, sports scored high. Facebook said Super Bowl XLVI ranked second and the London Games fifth among the top events mentioned. (The U.S. presidential election was No. 1.) Among public figures, Jets backup quarterback Tim Tebow ranked fourth and Eli and Peyton Manning tied for fifth behind top-ranked Barack Obama.
8a. The top searched athletes on Yahoo! in 2012: Tiger Woods, Maria Sharapova, Peyton Manning, Danica Patrick and Amanda Beard. The top searched sports teams: Cowboys, Yankees, Lakers, San Francisco Giants and Tigers.
9. Ratings updates: ESPN says its Saturday Night Football package on ABC was the highest-rated and most-viewed college football series among all networks carrying college football this season. The network averaged 6.51 million viewers, and its broadcast of Notre Dame's victory against USC on Nov. 24 averaged 16,059,000 viewers, making it the second-most-watched regular-season college football game of 2012, behind the SEC Championship on CBS. It was also the most-watched regular-season Notre Dame game since the Irish played Florida State on NBC in 1993. ABC's four games involving Notre Dame in 2012 averaged 8.83 million viewers.
9a. Heisman finalists Johnny Manziel and Manti Te'o were very good for ESPN. This year's Heisman Trophy ceremony was the second-most-viewed and second-highest-rated ever. The show averaged 4.9 million viewers, second only to 2009 (5.99 million) when Alabama's Mark Ingram edged Toby Gerhart in a tight race.
9b. ESPN Films' latest 30 for 30 documentary, You Don't Know Bo, which chronicled two-sport star Bo Jackson, drew 3.6 million viewers. That makes it ESPN's most-watched documentary ever. (The previous record was set in March 2011 by The Fab Five, which drew 2.7 million viewers.) Sports Business Daily said the six 30 for 30 films that aired this fall averaged a 1.3 rating and 1.9 million viewers.
10. Miscellaneous: The NFL will hold an NFL Sports Journalism & Communications Boot Camp from May 13-16, 2013, at Bowling Green (Ohio) State University. The goal is to assist players in choosing a post-NFL career in journalism and communications. The camp will include panel discussions, breakout sessions, field exercises and concentrated writing labs. The final assignment is covering a Toledo Mud Hens minor league baseball game.
10a.Bloomberg Sports has unveiled a new sports analytics blog, Stats Insights, which will contain original content and analysis for MLB, NBA, NFL and the five major European soccer leagues. The company says it will draw on the most advanced, data-driven predictive analytics.
10b. CBS Sports Network debuts Inside College Basketball on Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET, a one-hour roundtable show featuring analysts Alaa Abdelnaby, Mateen Cleaves, Wally Szczerbiak, basketball insider Jon Rothstein and hosts Dana Jacobson, Brent Stover and Adam Zucker. Pete Gillen, Doug Gottlieb and Steve Lappas will also appear in studio throughout the season. Courtside With Seth Davis (Davis is an SI colleague with above-average hair) returns for its fourth season on the same night (7 p.m.).
10c. The New York Post's Claire Atkinson reported last week that after the NFL Network's recent carriage deals with Time Warner Cable and Cablevision, the network will cost pay-TV providers an average of $1.29 per subscriber, up from 81 cents in 2011.
10d. Reader Justin Lovich of Tallahassee, Fla., asks: "Does the NFL have set limits on media timeouts and is there a structure to the duration of media timeouts?"
Thanks to NFL PR guru Dan Masonson, we have an answer. Said Masonson: "There are 21 TV timeouts in each game with five in three quarters and six in the other quarter. Each television timeout is 1:50 and the two-minute warnings in the second and fourth quarters account for two of those 21 TV timeouts."
10e. ESPN will air Pardon the Interruption Special: Notre Dame Timeline, a 30-minute show on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET) that will trace the key events of the past decade of Notre Dame football through how it was covered on PTI. That's a lot of behind-the-scenes work to pull such footage, so kudos to staffers Justin Bolman, Mary Moczula, Brad Morgan, Charles Peach, Clay Skipper and Megan McHale.
10f. Finally, we leave you with the NFL Network's Michael Irvin, who offered this prediction last Thursday on the network's pregame show: "The Seattle Seahawks will lose out and not make the playoffs."