Number nine on my cable box is ESPN. When nothing else is on, I know exactly what to expect from this network — pure drivel. ESPN is a fascinating creation of cable television. A good idea on paper, except for one small problem — sports aren’t played 24 hours a day. Solution? Boil entire games down to highlights, and show the same highlights all day. Then, have a bunch of has-beens and never-weres talk about the highlights. Now that’s quality entertainment.
Media outlets like ESPN have a unique and unparalleled ability to turn athletes into personalities. They build these men and women up into icons; then, with great quickness, dispatch the dogs to tear them apart. So I can only imagine the wet dream ESPN and its executives had over Kobe Bryant’s current legal trouble. Huge, gaping holes in programming can now be stuffed full of Kobe. Their packs of analysts now have a lamb for the slaughter — an athlete at the peak of his career, without a blemish on his record. Without doubt, Kobe Bryant was untouchable in the media, that is, before he opened the door and let a 19-year-old, and a world of problems into his life.
How hard they fall, and how fun it is to watch. We collectively gasp when a sports star is exposed as having personal problems, when most of us have our own skeletons in the closet. Kobe Bryant cheated on his wife. Did we expect more of Bryant? He promised the fans wins, not marital fidelity.
You want an athlete? There he is. You want a role model? Be careful what you wish for. The media put these men under the microscope, expect perfection then wonder aloud why athletes can’t deliver. They say they want upstanding role models. They say that Bryant had a responsibility to set a good example.
Turn the channel: number 74 on my cable box is the Outdoor Life Network, with such fine programs as “The Running of the Bulls,” “Total Bull: The PBR” and “Bill Dance Outdoors.” Somewhere in the middle of all that garbage, OLN broadcasts the Tour de France. In this year’s tour, two Americans dominated most of the field and put on a pretty good show. Chances are pretty good that you’ve heard of one: Lance Armstrong, the bike rider, turned cancer survivor, turned five time Tour de France champion. It’s hard to underestimate how miraculous his story is, both athletically and personally. The other rider, Tyler Hamilton, has ridden almost the entire length of this year’s Tour with a double-fracture of his collarbone, an injury he sustained in the first stage of the event. Here’s the kicker: He finished fourth in a field that includes the finest cyclists in the world.
Just like Bryant, these men are dominant in their sport — athletic perfection. Unlike Bryant, these men have demonstrated courage and integrity — the very things Bryant seems to be lacking. Sports media have in Armstrong and Hamilton the role models they claim to demand, yet aren’t interested — the only station that carries the Tour is OLN, your source for professional bullriding and sport-fishing. Sure, ESPN mentions Armstrong in passing and sometimes features a small clip of him dropping the hammer on his rivals, but as a whole it is uninterested in promoting Armstrong to the extent it had once promoted Bryant.
Why? Bikes don’t draw ratings. Here we have two amazing athletes that have proven to be upstanding individuals, but happen to participate in a sport that doesn’t make money with an American audience. If Bryant had a responsibility to set a good example, ESPN too has a similar responsibility to step up and showcase men like Armstrong and Hamilton.
It won’t, however, because cycling is boring. How sad. Meanwhile, our favorite sports: basketball, baseball and football, have given us a veritable all-star team of fallen icons. If we are to boil sports down to the individual and turn athletes into celebrities, we had better be more careful of whom we choose to elevate. This recent episode with Kobe Bryant won’t be the last time an athlete has fallen from the public’s good graces. It’s part of a long and disturbing pattern, yet the fans will keep coming back for more and come laden with the same misplaced trust. Fool me once? Shame on you. Fool me a hundred times over? I’ll take box seats.
Adams can be reached at email@example.com.