How ESPN Killed Sports

By Bob Hiller

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If you were a sports fan growing up in the ‘90s, chances are you were a SportsCenter junkie like me. ESPN brilliantly came up with the idea of making a news show based on highlights from that given day’s sporting events. I got my education in sports from the likes of Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann on their self-glossed “Big Show.” (Dan Patrick’s is still one of my favorite sports talk shows). The rhetoric of Chris Berman, Craig Kilborn, and Rich Eisen shaped the way my friends and I speak of homeruns or slam dunks. I remember Robin Roberts before she sold out to Good Morning America. Phrases like “The whiff,” “Back, back, back, back, GONE!” “You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him” all mean something to my generation of sports fan. Mix exciting highlights, witty banter, and a few human interest stories and you’ve got a billion dollar sports show.

I love watching it, but SportsCenter has ruined sports. That may sound a bit unfair considering that ESPN and especially SportsCenter have played a crucial role in making sports a significant part of our culture. However, I am becoming more and more convinced that there is something dangerous about the way sports “news” portrays sports. Let me explain…

I remember once catching the highlights from a Denver Nuggets game I missed. Though the Nuggets won, the other team got all the air-time. What they did was more fun to watch. The message (besides how lame the Nuggets were) was clear: highlights matter more than victories. Don’t worry about teamwork and winning, kids. Just get on Sportscenter!

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SportsCenter is based on “the highlight.” That is, the folks in Bristol, CT (home of ESPN) sit down and watch every game that was played on any given night. From those games, they extract five or six of the most exciting moments in order to replay them as highlights. This way we all enjoy a piece of the action. This only makes sense, after all, we only want to see the exciting stuff. Who wants to watch a pitcher walk a batter in the bottom of the fifth? No, we just want to see the homerun that wins the game. The problem comes when that walk and that homerun each played a significant role in the game’s outcome. George Will, for example, makes a brilliant case that baserunners actually matter more than homeruns. But, walks are boring. And boring is a sin on show based on highlights.

By reducing sports to highlights, SportsCenter has done a disservice to everything else that goes into the making of a game. Excitement is critical to a game, but it isn’t the whole show. Regardless of how exciting or mundane each part may be, every game is a story, every play or at bat is important to the plot, every player has an important role. Whether intentionally or not, SportsCenter has taught us that what really matters in sports is not the game but the moments of excitement and pleasure. So we’ll allow for PEDs to enter our athlete’s bodies because it makes for better highlights. Remember, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how (sexy) you play the game.

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I hate to play the “think-of-the-children” card here, but this is why kids love playing video games more than an actual pick-up game of basketball at the park. On a video game you can create your own highlights (remember when you got hot in NBA Jam and the ball was literally…er…pixally on fire?). Contrast that with the hard work of practicing free-throws, learning to box out, and having to actually think about ways to out play smarter against better talent. It takes a lot of work to look really good on the court or on the field. It even requires getting warmed up and into the flow of a game before the great stuff starts happening. But, kids just want to look amazing without the work. They want the highlights without all that business of actually learning to play the game. SportsCenter inadvertently removes the virtues we find in sports by overvaluing the moments of pleasure.

I guess what troubles me about this is not so much that this is what SportsCenter has done to sports, but that SportsCenter exemplifies what has become a way of life for us.

What matters is not the hard work and commitment that go in to making something beautiful, but moments of excitement. Highlights are to sports what pornography is to sex or what CNN and Fox News are to political discourse or what Twitter is to intelligent dialogue (or even what an ecclesiastical parochial pulp newspaper is to churchmanship): just another way of reducing life to momentary pleasures or sound bites that demand immediate reaction. The virtues of hard work and honing one’s craft are gone. Thoughtless emoting rules the day.

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This even creeps into the culture of the church when, for example, we highlight incredible feats of faith without acknowledging the virtues of the everyday lives of the saints. When we as a church spend our time highlighting Christians involved with some radical or extreme ministries, as good and necessary as those things are, we tend to miss the virtue in the everyday saint whose work consists of showing up on time, changing your tires, and offering you a competitive rate. Because the tire guy is a baptized child of God, his mundane job is just as holy as the radical missionary. Or, when our worship services are defined by emotional highs, ecstatic experiences, or even a well performed, immaculately dressed liturgical rites, we miss the God who has promised to show up in ordinary words, water, bread and wine. Promoting a spirituality defined by radical spiritual highlights, we find ourselves under an oppressive guilt which stems from our inability to perform. Like the kids who can’t seem to succeed on the playground, we just end up burning out, going home and playing video games. (For a popular example of this sort of guilt inducing pressure, read Francis Chan’s Crazy Love…a pop-Christian book about love that mentions God’s love in Christ at one point, I think.)

A life lived in pursuit of “highlights” is oppressive and misses out on the beauty and freedom of the everyday. The Lord Jesus, who Isaiah says was really nothing to look at, doesn’t look upon us and reward our highlights. Rather, He comes to us in the mess of our unremarkable, normal lives and declares our everyday, mundane routines to be good works he prepared in advance for us to do! Because Jesus’ blood declares you righteous, you and what you do are pleasing to His Father…even if you don’t make SportsCenter.

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