My husband turned to a rerun of the ESPYs just in time for us to see Michael Phelps win an award for the “best record-breaking performance,” which was when he earned his 16th gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. I looked at my husband and asked, “So, because Phelps won a bunch of awards, they’re giving him another award?” And thus began an idiotic evening with the ESPYs.
The ESPYs, ESPN’s award show which is meant to highlight and congratulate excellent athletic performance, actually reveals everything that is wrong with today’s sports culture. We deride the pee-wee soccer leagues that give a trophy to every kid just for playing, but how is it any better when ESPN hands out awards to Michael Phelps, LeBron James, The Heat, and others just because they’ve previously won awards? What kind of sense does this make?
The ESPYs is just a formalized version of countless drunk conversations I’ve overheard in bars. Over chicken wings and $1 beers, I’ve seen people willing to fight to the death concerning the battle of who’s had the better year: Peyton Manning or Adrian Peterson? Nevermind that these two players don’t even play the same position, nulling most valid comparison points—it’s an unwinnable argument. Yet the ESPYs decide that there must be a winner, but take even more logic out of the debate by also including Buster Posey and Mariano Rivera, who don’t even play football, in the fight. These are the debates that are meant to be held over a basket of chicken wings because they are so ridiculous, yet here we are, dressing the debates up and asking a tuxedo-wearing Jon Hamm to moderate them.
The number of celebrities who attended and presented at the ESPYs without any connection whatsoever to the sports world (Jason Sudeikis, Olivia Wilde, Paula Patton, and Tom Cruise, just to name a few) further reveals that this award ceremony celebrates the very thing eating away at the sports world: fame. Nominees arrive in ostentatious, attention-getting outfits, and it is apparent that what the ESPYs are truly celebrating has nothing to do with athleticism, sportsmanship, or determination: it’s all about celebrity.
Yes, there were some feel-good moments at the awards ceremony, such as the award presented to Jack Hoffman, the 7-year-old who just finished chemotherapy and ran a 69-yard touchdown with Nebraska; or, seeing Robin Roberts recognized for her positivity in light of some very daunting health crises. But the truth is, these would have been feel-good moments regardless of the ESPYs, and were in fact moments I had already seen discussed in the media prior to this awards ceremony. Despite the ESPYs’ good intentions here, their recognition served no real purpose that hadn’t already been achieved.
Sports have an invaluable place in our culture. When played right, they push people to be the best version of themselves, build strong work ethics, and whether as fans or players, they give people something in common to root for. Though I have not one athletic bone in my body, I recognize that the sports I played growing up helped me to be a better team member, to work harder, and they gave me a way to communicate with my sports-loving parents.
Sports are a necessary and beneficial attribute to society. The ESPYs and the vanity they represent, however, are not.
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