overthinking the idiot box

July 25, 2005

Everything you ever wanted to know about sports on TV.

At The Buzzer
The Worldwide Leader in Self-Promotion Proudly Presents...

by Alan Bloom

The things I do for SMRT-TV, I tell you what. Last night, I endured what has now become the marquee event for ESPN, the 13th annual ESPY Awards. Staged at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre, the Worldwide Leader in Self-Promotion — err, Sports (for crying out loud, that's like if I created an awards show called "The ALANs," and don't act like you wouldn't watch it) gathered top celebrities from sports and entertainment to commemorate the past year (season, as it were) and relive great moments, games, and performances that decorated the world of sports.

Uh, guys? How can you quantify a feat that has already been, well, quantified? To add value to an event that has already proven it's worth during the run of competition? And in completely separate events?
For the second year in a row, fans voted on the winners in all categories. Hey, that's all well and good, but it begs the fairly obvious question: Uh, guys? How can you quantify a feat that has already been, well, quantified? To add value to an event that has already proven it's worth during the run of competition? And in completely separate events? For example, basketball and swimming don't quite have the symbiotic relationship shared by drama and comedy. Who can honestly say whether the Boston Red Sox were a better team this year than the New England Patriots? A better story? Probably, but not necessarily a better "team." But I am fairly confident that I know the answer to my question: Who cares? It's a "party." Well, a party to some, another flagrant and meaningless awards show to others, but to most it's one more way for ESPN to pump itself up.

Either way, there is no disputing that the atmosphere surrounding the ESPYs is predominantly light. Despite its good production value and ESPN's relentless (relentless!) promotion, the show is limited in appeal in as much as sports (and sports awards) only speak to a market bordering between niche and casual. How many non-sports fans will be watching? Very few, if any. Hence the heavy tease featuring Destiny's Child in one of their "final" on-stage performances together. (By the way, I don't know who is responsible, but having Serena Williams join Beyonce, Kelly, and Michelle on stage to strike poses works on so many levels. Well done.) How many sports fans are looking forward to an awards show? I imagine the crossover isn't too high, although "best women's tennis player" Maria Sharapova was there. So, you know... Maria, Maria.

However, while no actors or musicians required identification, every athlete did. Not once did the cameras cut to an athlete in the crowd and not Chyron their name. And here I thought that this event was a harmless, self-indulgent treat for sports fans. You know? People who would be able to pick Pete Carroll and Carly Patterson out of a crowd. I have to admit that aside from channel surfing and accidentally stumbling upon brief segments of previous ESPY shows, I have not sat down to properly watch a full ESPY telecast since Tony Danza ("Mona! Angela! Samantha!") hosted in 1995 and opened the show by walking through the aisles and joking with various celebrities, saying the word "Shinicock" about twelve times when happening upon golfer Corey Pavin. Yup, and now you know why I haven't been following the ESPYs too closely over the years.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that, while brash in presentation, one of the underlying motives behind the ESPYs is incredibly noble. The ESPY Awards are committed to the advancement of The V Foundation for Cancer Research, established by ESPN with the late Jim Valvano and announced at the inaugural ESPY Awards in 1993. Valvano's speech at that first ESPY Awards was one of the most remarkable, captivating, and tear-jerking moments in television, and ESPN, megalomaniacal hype-machine that it is, has done their very best to preserve Valvano's memory.

And now, the highs and lows of the 2005 ESPY Awards:

Your host, ladies and germs: Matthew Perry. Oy...a couple one-liners here and there, but largely unimpressive as award show hosts go. The video segment he did for "best sports film" winner Friday Night Lights, in which he was digitally inserted into the movie at a particularly dramatic moment a la Billy Crystal, was especially rough. I mean, the guy did The Whole Nine Yards, people! C'mon!

One of the more inspired comedic moments of the telecast was Ron Howard filming a movie with the Mets. Telling slugger Mike Piazza to change batting stances after the fifth inning because of bad lighting or dabbing Curt Schilling from head to toe with fake blood was fairly amusing. However, the whole segment was reminiscent in tone, and even comic delivery, of the MTV Movie Awards. For that matter, all the bumps between show and commercial of the camera sneaking around backstage and catching glimpses of celebrities and athletes mingling felt incredibly like the MTV Music Awards. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but again, the first thing I thought of while watching this bit was MTV, so...

Some athletes know how to style and profile (Dwyane Wade, Jennie Finch). Some don't. Though she looked nice, golfer and "best female athlete" winner Annika Sorenstam is clearly more comfortable on the golf course. "Best NFL player" Peyton Manning is dressed sharply, but is so straight laced you wonder if he was intent on having any fun. The notoriously low-key quarterback was accompanied by his wife, but hey, it's a party. Athletes and evening wear can sometimes result in disaster. I refer you to Diana Taurasi at the 2004 ESPYs, skulking around like she'd never worn a dress before. But they aren't "the beautiful people," they're jocks, and that isn't necessarily a knock on them. Obviously, when you compare a slouching (maybe it was just her broad shoulders that fooled me into thinking she slouched) Annika Sorenstam to the sexy and elegant Jessica Biel, there's not much to say other than, "Well damn, we expect that from Jessica. My, oh my, she is fine. Oh hey, good effort, Annika." Additionally, Maria Sharapova.

Terrell Owens and Nicollete Sheridan reuniting on stage was a great visual. I just wish they didn't have to read any of that painful copy that shows up on the monitor. Also, it was kind of upsetting to be reminded of why this pairing presenting together was so funny.

I love Maria Sharapova. I just do. Did you see her smirking and pursing her lips on stage when presenting an award with Wilmer Valderamma? She's a seductress, my friends. Oh yes she is. And she was toying with us.

Towards the end of the show, Perry, dedicated hockey fan and Canadian, welcomed back the sport of ice hockey from its one year work stoppage. Earnest and a little saccharine, yet honest. I have missed my NHL and it was nice to see even a brief mention of it on screen before people totally forget what a puck looks like.

The Arthur Ashe Courage Award, presented annually to individuals whose contributions transcend sports, was truly touching and quite uplifting. It was handled in a classy, respectful manner, with no less than a humbled Oprah "I could buy a country if I wanted" Winfrey on hand to present. The honor was bestowed upon disabled athletes Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah and Jim MacLaren, whose inspirational story not only gives hope to the disabled of America, but the world over, specifically Yeboah's native Ghana where it is considered a curse to be born with a disability. True to ESPN form, a touching SportsCenter-esque feature with Kiefer Sutherland narrating (can you say "produced?") showed us more about human adversity in three minutes than many of us have experienced in a lifetime. Even I got a bit verklemped when Yeboah, after he and MacLaren delivered their thank you speech to a standing ovation from peers and admirers, donned a blue Ghana scarf around Winfrey's neck and hugged her.

Destiny's Child. Yup, they definitely performed at the end of the show. It really is all about Beyonce with that group, isn't it? Good luck to the other two.

All in all, the 13th annual ESPYs were a perfectly adequate show. Some moments were funnier than others and at times very affecting. Maybe it's the culture of "hero worship" celebrated so freely by ESPN that gets under my skin. To elevate athletes into demi-gods simply because they can dunk a basketball or throw a football rather than recognize them as just people like you or I seems almost dishonest, if not completely sycophantic. So why is it that I keep coming back to ESPN for more?

What can I say? I'm a sucker for sports montages set to Aerosmith's "Dream On."

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Return to Vol. 1, Episode 9.