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ESPN Gets Too Loud For Its Own Good

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Michael Irvin was a great football player. He was one of the best receivers of the 1990s, and is certainly worthy of Hall of Fame consideration.

Now, he’s an analyst. And since I began to watch him a bit more regularly since he began on ESPN in 2003, I have concluded that as an on-air talent, he … was a great football player.

Believe me, I would have written this column weeks ago. My problem with Irvin has nothing to do with him being arrested last week for having drug paraphernalia in his car. My problem is not with Irvin, but rather with what he represents.

The problem I have is not specifically with Irvin’s legal problems, though I wonder about the idea of giving someone who has been busted twice for drugs such a high-profile role on a network.

Actually, the problem is not with Irvin, but with ESPN. Irvin yells, makes little sense, and adds very little to shows, aside from personal star power.

But he’s not the only one. John Kruk has been just as frustrating at times.

ESPN used to be the network that I watched all the time. Any big sports fan that was lucky enough to have cable probably has fond memories of Chris Berman, Tom Jackson and the late Pete Axthelm on NFL Prime Time.

Berman could be overbearing at times, but he still had a likable quality. No matter how loud he was, he was pushing sports, not himself. He’s still like that, for the most part.

Jackson is one of the best analysts in the business. He dissects plays and strategy without coming across as arrogant. At the same time, he has a natural, clear and calm delivery.

Most readers may not remember Pete Axthelm, who died in 1991. In truth, my memories are vague as well, since he died when I was 10. But I remember him being a nice balance with the others and a clear commentator.

That was the best of ESPN. But times have changed, and not for the better.

I’m not sure when ESPN’s transformation happened. In 1992, the network used a marketing slogan that told viewers that ESPN was “in your face.” I didn’t really like the slogan then, and it didn’t last very long. But now, 13 years later, ESPN has become what it claimed.
Michael Irvin screaming, the reporters on Around the Horn bickering, and announcers bellowing “jacked up” on Monday nights is what greets an ESPN viewer.

Then there are the SportsCenter anchors. Years ago, in the days of Keith Olbermann, Craig Kilborn and Charlie Steiner, the show oozed with humor and creativity.

But now, those men are distant memories, and their replacements make me long for the dignified delivery of Bill Patrick.

Maybe Kilborn and Olbermann were just as interested in making themselves stars. But they were good. Their quips didn’t seem to be rehearsed.

This would normally be the part of the column when I would contrast the anchors of yesteryear with a few of today’s talent.

The problem is, they have all (with the exception of Dan Patrick and Linda Cohn) become unrecognizable. In fact, when I think of the show now, I just think of one red-faced, catch phrase spewing hack.
But I have trouble coming up with a name. How ironic.

(In some ways, Olbermann and Kilborn, who crossed over to other areas of media, are to blame. Their success undoubtedly led the network to search for anchors who tried to emulate them).
I’d just like to watch an ESPN program where catchphrases weren’t used, where voices weren’t raised, and arguments weren’t so common.

I’d like ESPN to find a comfortable spot on my TV. Not in my face.
Note: Yes, I love Pardon the Interruption. But it’s only good when Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon host it. Those two work so well together, and don’t take themselves too seriously. Plus, they are funny. It’s why I’m willing to forgive the occasional screamfest.

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  • Isn’t “Jacked Up” TJ’s segment to begin with?

    But ESPN has seemed to take the “Crossfire” approach to talking about sports, like two guys in a bar arguing over which teams’s the best. Only these guys are wearing suits and making much more money.

  • RJ

    Yeah, PTI is great with Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon. But, in general, I dislike the pissing contests that have become more common on ESPN of late…

  • matt

    Yeah, I agree — but how to fix this? Not watch? There are too many people that LOVE this kind of bickering. This is the same niche that makes shouting, call-in sports radio work — listening to someone rant makes others do the same. If I’m the average sports radio listener and the host of the show I’m listening to makes a “RETAHHDED” point (I’m from Boston, mind you, where all we do is yakk about sports) I’m going to call in and yell back. People seem to enjoy pissing matches because everyone thinks they know more than the idiot on the air, conversely, every idiot on the air loves to rile up the listeners because controversy sells. For purposes of TV, we’ve shifted from the Kronkites and the “dignified deliveries” of anchors, who we used to turn to as a sensible voice of reason, someone to give us the news. Now, everyone’s got an opinion on the news — heard of blogs? I’m not indicting anyone, just saying simply, this is the way mainstream media is now. I’m not so much sure that we can change it.

  • Comment #1 above was chosen as Comment of the Day for Sunday December 4th 2005.

  • ESPN has become damn near unwatchable these days. Volume and persuasion are not the same thing. The lungs are not reservoirs of learning. The analysis in the pregame shows is practically worthless and the presentation of the games themselves has worsened.

    I used to be a total ESPN junkie. No longer. I watch when they carry a game I wish to see. I watch much less SportsCenter and I do not watch nearly as many of their other programs as I did in the past.

  • MCH

    To their credit, at least ESPN had the decency to get rid of Rush Limbaugh and his ignorant prejudice towards Donovan McNabb.

  • Rush didn’t have prejudice against McNabb. He said the media did.

  • RJ

    I recall seeing Ron Jaworski and Merrill Hoge have a heated argument about the merits of Steve Spurrier becoming the new head coach of the Washington Redskins (this was a few years ago).

    It was almost embarrassing to watch…

  • MCH

    Re comment #7;
    “Rush didn’t have prejudice against McNabb. He said the media did.”

    Here’s what Limbaugh really said on Sept. 29, 2003 on ESPN:
    “Donovan McNabb is overrated. What we have here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback can do well…black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well. There’s a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of his team that he didn’t deserve. the defense carried this team.”

  • Here’s the thing with the Limbaugh hire. Regardless of whether Limbaugh’s remarks were racist (I believe they were not), ESPN shouldn’t be given credit for getting rid of him.
    They didn’t hire Limbaugh because they thought he’d be an expert NFL analyst. They hired him so he would be controversial, and so he would do exactly what he did.
    I have trouble believing whoever hired him at ESPN (or more likely, ABC/ Disney) believed he’d be a long-term contributor.
    They hired him for sizzle, which is exactly my problem with ESPN over recent years.
    Politically, I am pretty much on the right, but I hated the idea of Limbaugh on the show. And what he said about McNabb was wrong. He didn’t do the right research to make his points.
    Of course, a lot of what Limbaugh was brought in to be (loud, intentionally controversial, ill-prepared) can be said about a lot of ESPN talent now.

  • Matthew T. Sussman

    He didn’t talk about McNabb personally. He talked about the media perception of McNabb, as MCH’s quote highlights.

    And as much as Rush doesn’t make sense on a daily basis, that line did make sense. Whenever the team struggles, whose fault is it?

    The defense?

    Andy Reid?

    The lack of a good wide receiver?

    The lack of a running game?

    Terrell Owens’ mouth?

    The fans?

    Oh, anybody but the golden boy, McNabb.

    That’s why he’s overrated. And, as great and gifted a quarterback that he is, he always will be overrated, because after Rush went down on ESPN “criticizing” him, nobody else will have the onions to repeat those sentiments in the future, even if it may have validity.

    What’s funny in the “Owens Is A Media Whore” scandal is that there was one group of people, highlighted in Jason Whitlock’s column, that did not publicly condemn Owens and defend McNabb — his own team.

  • MCH

    Re comment #8;
    “…he (McNabb) will always be over rated…”

    I guess that depends on the definition of “rated.”

    A few of McNabb’s accomplishments:
    Season…Statistic NFC Rank
    2004…31 TD passes 2nd
    2004…104.7 QB rating 2nd
    2004…8.3 yds per comp 2nd
    2000…330 pass completions 3rd
    2001…84.3 QB rating 4th
    2001…25 TD passes 4th
    2000…21 TD passes 4th
    2004…3,875 yards passing 5th
    2004…300 pass completions 6th
    2000…3,365 yards passing 7th
    2004…64.0 completion pct
    2001…3,233 yards passing 8th
    2003…3,216 yards passing 9th

    2001…3,994 total yards
    2001…629 yds rush, 7.3 avg, 6 TD

    **In 2004 became the first QB in NFL history to throw over 30 TD passes with fewer than 10 interceptions
    **Once threw four TD passes in a game after sustaining a broken ankle
    **4-time Eagles MVP (2001, 2002, 2003, 2004)
    **Helped team to the last three NFC championship games and last year’s Super Bowl
    **Passed for 357 yards and 3 TD in Super Bowl loss to Patriots
    **2004 NFC Offensive Player of the Year
    **4-time All-Pro
    **One of only four QBs in Philadelphia history to perform back-to-back 3,000 yards passing seasons, joining Sonny Jurgensen, Ron Jaworski and Randall Cunningham.

    McNabb’s off the field contributions:
    **The Donovan McNabb Foundation helps raise funds for the prevention of diabetes
    **The DMF also provides academic scholarships to Mt. Carmel High School and contributes to various churches in Philadelphia and Chicago, the Children Crisis Treatment Center and the American Red Cross;
    **McNabb is a national spokesman for the American Diabetes Association

  • Yes, that’s all true. He’s good. He’s great. But he’s not impervious to criticism, and certainly he’s not the best quarterback in the game.

    So, just for fun (which is why sports arguments are so delightfully joyous), let’s play this game.

    **In 2004 became the first QB in NFL history to throw over 30 TD passes with fewer than 10 interceptions

    That was the first year he threw more than 25 touchdowns in a season. Now how on earth did he do that? Who joined the team in ’04? It’s on the tip of my tongue … I think he wore No. 81?

    Next question!

    **Once threw four TD passes in a game after sustaining a broken ankle

    Against the Arizona Cardinals.

    Next question!

    **4-time Eagles MVP (2001, 2002, 2003, 2004)

    He is the best player on the Eagles. Won’t refute that.

    Next question!

    **Helped team to the last three NFC championship games and last year’s Super Bowl

    So he is 1-2 in Championship games and 0-1 in the Super Bowl.

    Next question!

    **Passed for 357 yards and 3 TD in Super Bowl loss to Patriots

    And three interceptions (although one was a laugher at the end of the game).

    Plus there were swirling rumors about his upset tummy at the end of the game, which may explain why they went so slow with 6 minutes left in the game and working with a 10-point deficit.

    Next question!

    **2004 NFC Offensive Player of the Year

    ‘Cause he had a wide receiver to throw to… again I forget his name … I wrote it down somewhere with a Sharpie …

    Next question!

    **4-time All-Pro

    They select six of those a year, and three of those years he was an alternate. He’s Number Seven! He’s Number Seven!

    Ne-ext question!

    **One of only four QBs in Philadelphia history to perform back-to-back 3,000 yards passing seasons, joining Sonny Jurgensen, Ron Jaworski and Randall Cunningham.

    Jeff George had back-to-back 3,500 yards passing in 93-94 for the Falcons. Some feat.

    And finally, charity work is awesome — I wish I did more myself — but this is about McNabb as an athlete, not as a human being. Pat him on the back, though. He does good things for people.

    And again, I’m not saying he’s a bad quarterback. He’s a great one. I’d love to have him on my team. I hope he wins a Super Bowl.

    But if over his career he doesn’t win, I hope the pressure goes to him and not to the running game, the receivers, the kicker, the coach, the Madden Curse, the Chunky Soup curse or … Bill Buckner.

    Fun stuff.

  • MCH

    **Once threw four TD passes in a game after sustaining a broken ankle

    “Against the Arizona Cardinals.”

    Yeah, shoulda thrown at least six or seven TDs against the Cardinals. Maybe I’m not as tough as you, but I had trouble walking across the street when I broke my ankle.

    “Next question!”

    I wonder if Donovan McNabb ever reads stuff like that and thinks to himself, Wow, another over-rated sports expert. (?)

  • I hate it when sports anchors are picked based on ‘star power.’ I’m reminded of late night tennis on CBS where it was Patrick McEnroe, who knows what he’s talking about, and some other guy who didn’t.

    This guy sounded like a football player, and had only the most casual understanding of the game of tennis. Every time someone scored an ace, he would say ‘ace.’ Just ‘ace.’ Same for double-faults, and so on. I suppose he thought that we didn’t have eyes.

    The attempts at banter were very strained. Pat McEnroe was forced to banter about things other than tennis. They picked him to draw in casual fans, I guess, but it never ocurred to them that casual fans aren’t watching a quarter-final on CBS at midnight.