In 2000 Grant Farred, then of Williams College, wrote an article in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues entitled "Cool as the Other Side of the Pillow" (a phrase Farred borrowed from Stuart Scott). The piece praised ESPN generally, and SportsCenter in particular, for bringing sports, language, and intelligence together in an entirely new way, devoid of team provincialism. Seven years later, Scott, the man who coined the phrase that became the title of Farred's paper, is mired in the much-maligned "Who's Now?" contest, and ESPN has become the bane of sports bloggers everywhere.
"SportsCenter elevated sports talk because it was unique and singular, but now you have stuff like Rome is Burning. Proliferation is the death of intelligence."
What went wrong? In the following interview, edited for clarity, Farrednow an associate professor of literature at Dukespeaks with Gelf about how ESPN has devolved over the last seven years, why some of its content is "just crap," and how the landscape of sports media has shifted.
Gelf Magazine: What do you think of the anti-SportsCenter/anti-ESPN backlash that has gained increasing currency among hardcore fans?
Grant Farred: I'm quite sure there are people who feel they came to athletic intelligence with ESPN, but I remember the moment I got turned off by it, which was when it got taken over by Disney [in 1996]. It mostly became promo ads after that. There used to be something to the idea that ESPN was an upstart and found its way to the top with wit and intelligence.
GM: Considering that some of these guys (Stu Scott, Chris Berman) are using the same catch phrases after seven years, hasn't it simply become schtick now?
GF: That's a way of putting, it, yes. These guys have become parodies of themselves and haven't been replaced effectively.
GM: It seems that the role formerly filled by SportsCenter has migrated to the internet. What's your take on a blog like Deadspin?
GF: Deadspin has a community like the old SportsCenter used to have. Younger people have gone to blogs, where they find the capacity to be informed and the right to contribute and form an opinion. It's a massive kind of empowerment and a very powerful development. On the other hand, not all blogs are created equal, so one would have to imagine that there are going to be real questions about the next generation of people who write about sports.
GM: How about the Sports Guy, though he does something considerably different?
GF: He could be really interesting, because it's savvy. Though I'm not really sure if the information is always right, as a style what he does is a winner. It's witty, it's smart, it's fun, it appeals to the inner sports fan. But you couldn't talk about yourself the way he does on SportsCenter.
GM: What do these things owe to '90s-era SC?Keith Olbermann, who has gone from snarky sports commentator to snarky political commentator?
GF: I tend to agree with Olbermann's politics. However, I am very seldom taken with his presentation. He was massively effective as SportsCenter host, because his snarkiness was kept under control by the co-anchor. Olbermann-let-loose is an ego that doesn't quite understand that you can't always be snarky. The right has a monopoly on snarkiness and odiousness with guys like Glenn Beck or Michael Savage, and for those people it's OK. But when you have a politics as left of center as Olbermann's, it's more difficult to get away with.
His politics are much more effective and effectively communicated when he is talking to someone, like Kenny Mayne or Stu Scott, who provides a counter to Olbermann. Or even Dan Patrick it's sad to see what happened to those guys, really. Olbermann took a courageous step, and one felt SportsCenter's format wasn't enough for him, that it wasn't quite his calling. He believed that forming another form of political discourse was his calling, which was honorable but it's not suiting him. He hasn't mailed it in like the others, though. He shouldn't be so snarky, but at least he tries.
GM: What do you think of some of the stunt-ish things ESPN has done lately, such as the "Who's Now?" voting contest?
GF: I look at that stuff and think it's just crap.
GM: Do you think SportsCenter has raised the IQ of sports discourse, lowered it, or had no impact?
GF: At the moment I wrote the paper, I believed it raised the IQ, but by now it is responsible for the deterioration of all sports talk. SportsCenter elevated sports talk because it was unique and singular, but now you have stuff like Rome is Burning. Proliferation is the death of intelligence. SportsCenter thrived because it was expansive and smart and because it stood in sharp contrast to other forms of sports talk. Part of [the decline] started with Keith Olbermann's departure.
"ESPN personalities have become parodies of themselves and haven't been replaced effectively."GM: Do you think most SC viewers are really going to get a Faulkner reference [one SportsCenter element mentioned in Farred's paper]?
GF: No, but enough of them will get enough of the intonation to get that it's not just about sports. You don't have to get the exact referenceyou don't even have to get all of thembut I know that the ESPN references I got gave me a sense of smarts and gratification and fun. It was even, I'll admit, a sense of intellectual entitlement. They were appealing to a college-educated audienceI would bet that most of SportsCenter's viewers did not get a shot at their college team or even high-school team.
GM: You seem to imply that all stats are created equal in the piece (comparing Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell based on points per game and most valuable player awards, for example), but don't different stats have different merits and aren't some better than others? Isn't it possible that stats can increase one's enjoyment of sports?
GF: Stats are a fairly reliable indicator of a players' performance and ability, but in a crucial situation the question is not about stats, but the ability to deliver. If we think of stats as a shorthand for narrative we're in trouble, but it can be a complement to narrative. Sabermetrics, I think is kind of phenomenal. That stuff can tell you an entire story.
GM: You often discuss the "black body/white mind" divide in sports. Has this persisted, and what is its current state?
GF: It's no longer a question of black body/white mind, because the black body is still in very powerful view, but any kind of eloquence seems to be massively absent. There are still too many white voices, but the black voices are only so much verbiage. A guy like Stephen A. Smith, he has the intelligence of a Philadelphia mall rat, but he gets away with it because he's black and there's an understanding that that's somehow how a black guy talks. Stu Scott, on the other hand, at no point overly reminded you that he was black, but he never apologized for it, either. It does seem to me that a kind of race politics is partly responsible for the lack of that sort of eloquence.
GM: What's your take on the Imus-Rutgers fiasco? Was the outcry about what he said right?
GF: It was essentially really bad timing on Imus's part. If you're gonna say stupid stuff, at least say it in the confines of your own private space. It was a question of timing: Issues of gender, race, and violence against women were in the media at that moment due to the Duke lacrosse case. Had he said it two or five years ago, I would bet that Imus would still be employed today. Of course I disagree with him. It was offensive, but it was also Imus; he didn't say anything there he hasn't said elsewhere. The bigger issue is always a question of race and how race operates in this country. It is eminently unspeakable and perpetually present in all American discourse. Race is always an issue that goes away and comes back again. It can be explosive in a single moment, like with Imus or Michael Richards.