By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) The Big 12 is crumbling. Big East powers are fleeing to the ACC. And practically every American outside the 305 area code (that’s Miami) carries a personal vendetta against LeBron James.
And for all of it, I put the blame on ESPN.
Although, I suppose it’s partly our fault, too. Because, you know, we really didn’t listen.
After all, 32 years ago when a fledgling ESPN first set up shop in Bristol, Conn., the station’s founding fathers established its name as the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.
They didn’t call it the Sports and Entertainment Programming Network, mind you. Nor did they simply refer to it as the Sports Programming Network, which apparently just wasn’t entertaining enough.
Nope, right from the get-go, the folks at ESPN made sure that when it came to their station’s official handle, the word “Entertainment” would be batting leadoff.
Now, perhaps, that decision back in 1979 was simply because in its early days ESPN was forced to air borderline sports programming such as pro wrestling bouts and personal fitness shows (remember Gilad?) to fill its relentless 24-hour time slots. And those shows fell more comfortably into the realm of “entertainment” than they did in the world “sports.”
Or, perhaps, that wasn’t the case at all. And ESPN was instead foretelling its own future.
A future that’s now our present. And one in which the “Worldwide Leader” seems just as interested in promoting “sports entertainment” and creating news and controversy as it is in reporting on actual sports and covering its news and controversy.
Last summer, of course, ESPN made the decision along with LeBron James and his cronies to broadcast “The Decision.” An hour-long ode to “The King,” the show was intended to court LeBron global adoration, but ended up instead drawing nationwide derision after the star famously humiliated Cleveland on national TV with his announcement that he was “taking his talents to South Beach.”
If James had merely held a relatively low-key press conference – and not a made-for-prime time set using little kids as background props – to declare his move to Miami, Cleveland natives would have been ticked at their departing star. But I think the rest of the nation would have largely understood.
Instead, though, ESPN aided in pushing – or shoving – LeBron’s egomania so far over the top that it turned him into the nation’s biggest Public Enemy since another renowned shooter named Dillinger.
And because the network played such an enormous role in creating the vitriol directed towards LeBron James, it was unable to credibly report on the true reasons why so much was vitriol directed toward LeBron James (namely, because of “The Decision”).
Surely, I wasn’t the only one to notice that.
Now, this summer, ESPN has again donned its “Sports Entertainment” cap and has been playing the role of home-wrecker as colleges and conferences across the country scramble to survive the aftershocks of its ill-advised partnership with the University of Texas to establish the “Longhorn Network.”
Last summer, when Nebraska and Colorado bolted for greener pastures, the Big 12 was on life support. However, the conference, was able to wrangle its 10 remaining members and cobble together an agreement that appeared to provide some temporary stability.
It turned out, however, that stability was incredibly temporary as Texas soon went on to announced that it was linking up with ESPN to set up its own TV network – a network from which it would keep all the revenue and share none with its fellow Big 12 members.
Besides the obvious (greed), I couldn’t fathom any good reasons why the wonks at ESPN – which broadcasts and, you know, supposedly reports on college athletics – thought this idea to be a wise one. After all, not unlike its broadcast of LeBron’s “Decision” and the subsequent shoddy reporting, how could ESPN legitimately cover any hard news involving the University of Texas when it was deep in bed with the University of Texas?
Turns out, it really can’t.
For example, on Sunday night, as ESPN was reporting on Big 12 schools potentially leaving for the Pac-12, the news crawl on the screen read: “ESPN, which operates the Longhorn Network, had no comment.”
Yes, ESPN has no comment to ESPN. On a huge sports story.
That’s what things have come to today with the “Worldwide Leader.”
And it doesn’t even stop there. As another example, ESPN – and not just Dick Vitale – have long shown an affinity (and I’d say a favoritism) toward the ACC. And I suspect that’s a key reason why Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced this week that they’re leaving the Big East to join the Atlantic Coast Conference. Other Big East schools – including even Notre Dame – are reportedly considering bolting for the ACC, as well.
And don’t think for a moment that the attention from ESPN doesn’t have anything to do with their interest. In fact, on Monday, Orangebloods.com – the University of Texas fan site and authority on all things conference realignment – reported that, “Multiple sources said Texas was banking on ESPN to make a marriage between the ACC and Texas that would allow the Longhorns to keep LHN (the Longhorn Network). But that appears to have failed, the sources said.”
If that just sounds wrong to you, then you’re not alone.
And if the Big 12 does collapse and the Big East follows suit – or even if they don’t, but college football’s treasured regional rivalries are irrevocably altered forever – perhaps the biggest culprit in it all won’t be difficult to find.
It’s broadcasting live from Bristol, Conn.
And turning a blind eye towards its influence creating some of the biggest – and sorriest – controversies in sports today.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.