In the sports journalism world, there are reporters who cover ESPN with much the same intensity as D.C. correspondents cover the White House. For good reason: the network, the self-titled “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” is the prism through which millions of Americans — like, say, President Obama, avowed ESPN junkie — view sports. Over the past year or so, expert reporters such as Jon Koblin of Deadspin — a site with a long history of scrutinizing ESPN — and Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated have cast a particularly critical eye on First Take, the morning debate show which airs on ESPN 2 (you can read examples of their work here and here; Sports Illustrated, as with TIME, is a Time Inc. property).
The program peddles manufactured debate. Commentator Skip Bayless, a loudmouth who has drawn the ire of Charles Barkley and Mark Cuban and The Onion and countless other athletes and viewers, takes a position on some pedestrian sports topic — Tim Tebow can do no wrong! A rotating band of “experts,” most notably the bombastic Stephen A. Smith, sit across the table from Bayless. They scream at each other.
I’ve seen First Take occasionally, found it boring and annoying, and just changed the channel. Many people, however, are drawn to the show; ESPN has been trumping First Take‘s ratings success. Maybe some people enjoy the banter. Many more, I suspect, hate First Take so much, they can’t turn it off. If ESPN wants to capitalize on these dynamics, so be it. Personally, I never got that worked up about the show.
But then, on Thursday’s program, Rob Parker, a frequent First Take contributor, reacted to this quote from Washington Redskins star rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III:
I am an African-American in America. That will never change. But I don’t have to be defined by that…We always try to find similarities in life, no matter what it is so they’re going to try to put you in a box with other African-American quarterbacks – Vick, Newton, Randall Cunningham, Warren Moon…That’s the goal. Just to go out and not try to prove anybody wrong but just let your talents speak for themselves.
“What does this say about RG3?” Parker was asked. His response:
For me, personally, just me, this throws up a red flag, what I keep hearing. And I don’t know who’s asking the questions, but we’ve heard a couple of times now of a black guy kind of distancing himself away from black people …
But time and time we keep hearing this, so it just makes me wonder deeper about him. And I’ve talked to some people down in Washington D.C., friends of mine, who are around and at some of the press conferences, people I’ve known for a long time. But my question, which is just a straight honest question. Is he a brother, or is he a cornball brother?
Parker was asked what that meant.
Well, [that] he’s black, he kind of does his thing, but he’s not really down with the cause, he’s not one of us. He’s kind of black, but he’s not really the guy you’d really want to hang out with, because he’s off to do something else …We all know he has a white fiancée. There was all this talk about he’s a Republican, which, there’s no information [about that] at all. I’m just trying to dig deeper as to why he has an issue.
Parker was incredibly wrong. RG3 has no “issue” with being African-American. He’s not “distancing himself away from black people.” Just read this transcript of Parker’s comments, which includes recent statements RG3 has made about race. Griffin embraces who he is, is proud that African-American fans take such pride in him, and is seeking to be defined by much more than his race. That’s a model approach to his profession.
Parker was incredibly offensive. Because RG3 has fallen in love with a white woman, because he exercises his right to political expression and maybe supports the Republican party, he is somehow a “cornball?” Internet commenters, of all races, roundly denounced Parker’s comments. On Twitter, Touré, the influential, respected African-American writer and commentator — and TIME contributor — called Parker’s innuendos “frightening.” Former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, also on Twitter, said Parker may have offered “the worst commentary I have ever heard.” An ESPN spokesman admitted that Parker’s comments were “inappropriate.” He added: “We are evaluating our next moves.”
ESPN got exactly what it deserved. With First Take, the network made a strategic decision to traffic in shrill, sensationalist debate for ratings. Someone was bound to say something incredibly stupid. And that’s sad, because ESPN does so much great work. It already has an informative, intelligent, and entertaining debate show, Pardon the Interruption, which airs in the late afternoon. SportsCenter is still a lifeblood for sports fans. Programs like Outside the Lines, and the 30-for-30 documentary series, showcase some of the best journalism on television. Across all media platforms, ESPN employs many of the most talented announcers, commentators, TV reporters, producers, writers, and editors in the business.
It’s highly doubtful that anyone will stop watching ESPN because of the Parker mess. ESPN is too powerful, airs too many events, and is too much of an addiction for too many sports fans for that to ever happen. But, as the familiar sports cliché goes, you’re only as good as your record. If the network really cares about being great, about serving the sports fan it claims to care so much about, it should seriously think about revamping, if not dumping, First Take. Because if it doesn’t, ESPN is just inviting another Parker incident. If ESPN is willing to take such a risk, then the network is willing to insult America. And who can trust anyone like that?