I know hating on the Four-Letter is as fashionable in the blogosphere as Ed Hardy graphic tees and living in your mother’s basement, but I have to take the bait once in a while. Anyone else notice how hard the Bristol hype machine has been whiffing lately? Granted, they’ve been known to jump the gun a little bit in the past; anyone remember that segment they ran on every SportsCenter for two or three weeks before the Vince Young Rose Bowl where they repeatedly compared that year’s USC team to great historical teams to somehow determine that those Trojans were indeed the “best college football team ever assembled” and then they lost to the Longhorns? (I’ve always wondered, does that mean that ESPN now believes the 2006 Texas Longhorns were the best college football team of all time because they beat USC?)
Seriously though, look at the hype that’s been thrown at us lately and then look at what has actually unfolded. Big Brown was crowned, anointed, and damn near canonized as The Next Triple Crown Winner during the lag time between the Preakness and Belmont. They even sent Rick Riley out to Belmont in a brown suit, for God’s sake. At several points during the pre-race broadcast, the on-air talking heads claimed that the race was “as close to a foregone conclusion as any I’ve ever seen.” (and that’s a paraphrase, Mr. Bissinger; I know you’re reading anything concerning our equine friends)
So what happens? Big Brown turns in a worse lap time than an actual big, brown UPS truck would have and becomes the first ever Triple Crown hopeful to finish dead last at Belmont. Don’t worry, I’m not about to question the horse’s heart or desire or grit or hustle or any of those attributes normally used to describe David Eckstein. I know, I know, horses are people too and how dare I question anything about these warriors who sacrifice themselves for glory and victory…I mean these poor downtrodden, abused animals who have been systematically victimized from birth…wait, never mind. None of the above. It’s a horse running on a track. Still, there hasn’t been any kind of physical reason given for what happened at Belmont; seems like Big Brown just wasn’t trying to run hard that day. I’d like to think he was just sticking it to ESPN, saying “that’s what you get for trying to impart all this human drama and hype onto me.”
As entertaining as it was watching talking heads stumble over themselves trying to explain how a large land mammal managed to lay an egg, I actually enjoyed the Worldwide Leader’s Euro 2008 gaffe even more. ESPN is trying to push European soccer on us pretty hard lately (which I’m totally fine with; I don’t watch MLS soccer for the same reason I don’t watch double-A baseball), and their lead ad for the Euro 2008 tournament was based around the theme “If winning is an art, Italians are the masters.”
So what happens in the second match of the tournament? Italy gets stomped on 3-0 by the Dutch. Not only was it the first victory against Italy for the Netherlands in 30 years, but it was also the worst loss Italy has ever suffered in European competition. Believe me, I enjoyed every schadenfreude-rich moment of it. Maybe it’s a peculiarity of the region, or maybe I just know a lot of annoying people, but it really bothered me how many “Italians” in western New York flipped out when Italy won the World Cup a couple summers ago. Something just bothers me about people who are third and fourth-generation Americans, who have never been to Italy, and whose knowledge of the language is limited to Forza Azzurri jumping ship on their nation in favor of a place they’ve never been just because they’re good at soccer. So for all the bandwagon-jumpers, this is your sign to jump off:
…And no, it wasn’t offside, so stop your whining. The Italian national team is old, and about to be blown up. I look forward to finding out how many people turn out to be “lifelong fans of Brazil” at the next World Cup.
Basically what I’m getting at here (anti-Italian national team tangent aside) is that ESPN has undergone a subtle change over the past decade, and I don’t like the direction they’re going in. It used to be about reporting the story; now, they decide what the story is and then hype it to death. They got NASCAR rights, so they decided that America suddenly needed to know a lot more about making left turns. Hockey departed from their family of networks, and now gets no airtime and only sporadic, low-quality coverage on their website. There’s nothing we can really do to stop this change, but you can certainly choose how you react to it. I guess what I’m trying to say is think for yourself. ESPN is still the gateway to sports information, but the Internet gives you ways around the gatekeepers of access. Don’t just take Bristol’s word for it, do your own digging and find out what’s actually going on. That way, you’ll be the one laughing when the newest product of the Four Letter Hype Machine flames out.