Outside the Lines is supposed to be the safe haven from all the bullshit. Bob Ley likes to call the show the Switzerland of ESPN. It's the thinking man's sports program—Bristol's answer to NewsHour. Sonorous reporters intoning Serious News. An air of calm, cool reflection about the issues of the day. Even on Monday, as SportsCenter kept fucking Tim Tebow's chicken at the expense of the Jason Collins news, Bob Ley seemed to understand that there was a truly significant story breaking all around them:
Unintended but blessed consequence of Jason Collins’ courageous statement… Muting the Tebowmania.— Bob Ley (@BobLeyESPN) April 29, 2013
So what was this? How did a special hourlong edition of Outside the Lines, devoted to Jason Collins's announcement that he's gay, turn into The Anita Bryant Spectacular 2: Live From Bristol?
The Broussard vs. LZ Granderson showdown was ESPN at its worst, the reductio of the network's hideous "Embrace Debate" absurdum. Hours after the first active male athlete in major team sports had come out of the closet, ESPN had reduced the story to depressingly modular dimensions—a piece of sellable controversy lying equidistant between two competing claims. Chris Broussard was on TV, arguing the bigot's perspective. Poor LZ Granderson, an openly gay columnist for ESPN and a CNN contributor, was on the phone, arguing the other side. It was a debate. Is gayness an abomination unto the Lord? We'll hear from our NBA reporter after the break. Jason Collins had been Bristolized.
How'd it happen? An ESPN source told me that Broussard was already scheduled for the show—to talk about the Lakers, of course—when the Collins news broke. Granderson and Broussard had already individually appeared on SportsCenter earlier that day. The two know each other well, and the thinking went that, despite their different views of the matter, they could have a civil and interesting discussion if paired up for OTL.
Which was exactly the problem. The worst, most cynical thing about ESPN's "Embrace Debate" era is the animating idea that all the great issues of the day are merely debate-club propositions. Every question has two sides, and truth (and maybe a good Nielsen rating) is the product of the competition between them. Whenever a consensus threatens to emerge—Tim Tebow is a bad quarterback by all objective and subjective measures; Jason Collins is a gay-rights pioneer—ESPN pounds the issue into the ground until a fissure emerges, and sides can be chosen. Bristol is where consensus goes to die. And that's how we got Chris Broussard coming out to the world as a homophobe in a debate about the sinfulness of gay sex.
It's not as if Broussard's thoughts on homosexuality weren't known within ESPN. After a placid discussion of Collins's free agency prospects and the response around the league, fill-in anchor Steve Weissman all but goaded Broussard into saying something absurd when he asked him (referring to Collins): "He’s a Christian as well. What’s your take on that?" This question came after Broussard had already said, "I don't agree with homosexuality. I think it's a sin." Here's Broussard, delivering the absurd with gusto:
Personally, I don't believe that you can live an openly homosexual lifestyle or an openly premarital sex between heterosexuals, if you're openly living that type of lifestyle, then the Bible says you know them by their fruits, it says that's a sin. If you're openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality, adultery, fornication, premarital sex between heterosexuals, whatever it may be, I believe that's walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ. I would not characterize that person as a Christian because I do not think the Bible would characterize them as a Christian.
Mere hours after Collins's announcement, ESPN was having a point-counterpoint about Leviticus. What else was there to debate, after all?
Here's how Broussard tried to explain it in a radio interview yesterday. I'll quote it in full so you can enjoy the Beat poetry of it all:
I don't think there was any set up—I've seen a lot of people talking about set up—I definitely don't think there was a set up or anything like that. Without knowing, I'm thinking it's just more of me telling what I'm hearing around the league. And to be honest, LZ Granderson, who is a friend of mine, he's openly gay and he was on the show, and he kinda brought me and him, our personal history, into it, as far as us being friends and having really frank discussions about our beliefs. Disagreeing but disagreeing civilly and still being able to play ball together in different leagues and go to lunch together. We worked together at ESPN The Magazine, so that's how we met. That kinda took it to the personal level and then I was transferred from, like, reporter to columnist. You know what I mean? From reporter to giving my opinion and stuff like that.
On ESPN, a lot of times it's giving your opinion. And that's what I did. I'm one of the few on ESPN who half the time you see me I'm giving information. The other half, whether it's on First Take or some other show, I'm giving my opinion. Most guys are one or the other.
When you do give your opinion you can obviously become part of the story. I think Skip Bayless has become part of many stories or Stephen A. Smith has become part of stories. I think it became a distraction to the story, no doubt.
On ESPN, a lot of times it's giving your opinion. This is what the daytime SportsCenter and First Take have wrought: the total fetishization of the opinion. Look at how a colleague, daytime SportsCenter anchor Sage Steele, defended him on Twitter—as if merely stating an opinion on television rendered it somehow unimpeachable. What does it matter if it's no more intellectually or morally defensible than an anti-miscegenationist weighing in on RGIII's fiancée, or a segregationist debating 42? All that matters is that it's an opinion, ideally counterpoised against someone else's opinion.
ESPN has defended First Take by saying it's entertainment, not news. ESPN big dog John Skipper, in a fit of special pleading, cited the example of the broadcast networks. CBS News isn't judged harshly because the network also airs Amazing Race; why is ESPN judged by its worst drek?
One reason: The drek is contagious. The daytime SportsCenter, its ratings slipping, decided to copy elements of First Take's programming. Debate was embraced, and so was Tebow—remember that the Tebow birthday butt-bongo fiesta last year aired on SportsCenter, not First Take. ESPN's programming isn’t nearly as siloed as it likes to think it is.
A little less than eight hours after Broussard's comments, ESPN finally released a statement that let him off the hook: "We regret that a respectful discussion of personal viewpoints became a distraction from today's news. ESPN is fully committed to diversity and welcomes Jason Collins' announcement."
Well, horseshit. ESPN is in the distraction business. "Embrace Debate" is nothing if not an exhortation to distraction. There's a line of thought that ESPN did this on purpose, so as to steal some momentum from SI. That’s taking it too far. ESPN isn't malicious, but ESPN is more than occasionally very, very dumb. And what happened on Monday was exceedingly dumb, a mess of Bristol's own stupid creation. On an important and historic day, the spirit of Skip Bayless hung over everything.