The TMZification of Sports

Today's sports media more closely resemble Court TV and TMZ than the SportsCenter of yore.


I’m old enough to remember a time when sports coverage was hard to come by. Thirty-five years ago, the gold standard was Sports Illustrated, which put out a fantastic weekly magazine employing some of the best writers anywhere. Otherwise, sports news and analysis was limited to maybe five minutes a night on the local newscast and the Sports section of the local paper. Otherwise, it was in-season broadcasts of the various sporting leagues—with a tiny fraction of the game action available now—and oddities like ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”

Almost exactly 35 years ago—September 7, 1979—ESPN debuted. It took a while to catch on, since most of us were still getting our television over the airwaves in those days. Within twenty years, though, we were living in a golden age of sports coverage. Multiple live games were available on a daily basis. There were a plethora of sports channels—including half a dozen ESPN spinoffs, a handful of ESPN competitors, and whole networks devoted even to niche sports like golf and auto racing.  National sports talk was available 24/7 via television, radio, and satellite. Fans of any team could get more news and commentary from around the nation than they could read—even if they lived half a continent away.

All of that remains true, of course, and much of the coverage and commentary remains outstanding. But, increasingly, sports coverage is only tangentially about sports. Years ago, the geniuses at NBC decided that people tuned in to the Olympics not to see the best athletes on the planet compete in a quadrennial sporting event but rather to see a choreographed human drama that just so happened to involve the games themselves. In recent years, even programming obviously of no interest to anyone but hard-core sports fans have more closely resembled Court TV and TMZ than the  SportsCenter of yore.

In rare instances, that’s perfectly understandable. It was difficult not to cover the OJ Simpson trial on sports talk shows even twenty years ago. He was a household name before the incident, beloved by many for nearly two decades. Similarly, the implosion of Tiger Woods’ public reputation in the wake of a bizarre confrontation with him on the wrong end of a golf club was news. He was, arguably, the most famous and important active athlete on the planet at that point. And the horrific nature of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes contrasted with the previously saintly esteem in which Joe Paterno and his Penn State program were held demanded attention. But neither merited a solar eclipse of sports coverage for months on end. Donald Sterling’s embarrassing racial rant was hard for the NBA to ignore, much less the media. For that matter, the Ray Rice domestic violence incident naturally merits discussion, even though he was far from a household name beforehand; he was a star, but certainly no OJ Simpson.

In a world of 24/7 sports coverage, the sports media is going to cover stories only tangentially related to the games themselves. None of the episodes above should have been swept under the proverbial rug. But it seems like every incident involving even minor players on college teams, much less pro athletes, dominates the discussion to the exclusion of the thing the fans came to hear or watch.

I’m interested in the Ray Rice story. I’ve even blogged on it.  But I don’t want that to be the only thing they talk about on “Mike and Mike” or Sirius NFL Radio on my commute for days on end. I don’t want them to preempt “Pardon the Interruption” to have sports reporters opine on the nature of domestic violence, battered spouse syndrome, and the like. That’s simply not why we tune in to those programs.

Sports are a microcosm of life and there are all manner of distasteful distractions to go along with the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. But they’re also a form of escapism that allow fans to focus way too much attention and emphasis on things that, at the end of the day, don’t matter. As horrible as the Dallas Cowboys have become in recent years, watching them play and even reading or hearing about Jerry Jones’ latest attempt to right the ship provide an outlet for forgetting the mundane stresses of everyday life. Increasingly, though, we’re getting the sort of “true crime” reporting that have made watching the local news completely optional—and which I’ve therefore steadfastly avoided watching.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Sports reporting has kind of been drifting this way for awhile though, hasn’t it?

    Look at the way ESPN has focused relentlessly, to the point where the coverage becomes annoying, on “personalities” rather than the sports themselves. Tebow, Manziel, and to some extent Michael Sam (although his story is unique and newsworthy).

  2. Jr says:

    The Rice story might be the reason I throw in the towel for ESPN. I didn’t pay to watch Olbermann rant about the evils of Roger Goodell and the NFL…..but on the other hand I do enjoy my MNF, CFB, and NBA games.

  3. @Jr: }

    Just wait. I’m sure there will be a patented Bob Costas rant on Sunday night.

  4. Jr says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I can’t stand Costas. I am all for tougher gun laws, but I don’t want political discussion during half-time of NFL game.

  5. Tyrell says:

    I live for Sunday Night baseball on ESPN. To a large extent, baseball is not what it used to be in the ’60’s and ’70’s. This is due mainly to television and the length of the games. I also have not watched a complete World Series game since the Braves were in it. The NFL is getting overexposed, with two games on Monday nights, and Thursday night games. The Olympics strays from the competition and events to all of the “human interest” stories.
    Now the attention has suddenly shifted from Ray Rice to Commissioner Goodell. Everybody is jumping on him now. Why is that ? Who got the networks to switch their focus ? I will say this in closing: Commissioner Goodell is not the one going around beating up women. Don’t try to put this on him.

  6. bill says:

    sports has become too mainstream entertainment, i can’t ever watch the pre-game shows anymore as they’ll have some gay pop music bs with dancers and stuff. superbowl sunday is just another day for me, i wait until the game starts, go outside during halftime and come back for the rest unless it’s a blowout. mr fun, i know.

  7. Andre Kenji says:

    I disagree. The US media is correctly using the Ray Rice affair to discuss the important issue of Domestic violence. I wish that the Brazilian media could have done the same thing when a Brazilian soccer player killed her girlfriend.

  8. Jr says:

    @Andre Kenji: No, they aren’t. The fact that there is more outrage at the NFL and Roger Goodell then there is at the weak domestic violence laws in this country says it all.

    This country doesn’t give a damn about domestic violence, we however enjoy being outraged so we will remain outraged for a week or two then move on to the next story.

  9. C. Clavin says:


    some gay pop music bs with dancers and stuff.

    At least you’re not homophobic.

  10. Mr. Prosser says:

    @Tyrell: The reason Goodell is on the hotseat is because he and his office got caught in a big lie while spinning Rice’s suspension. I don’t think he’s long for his job.

  11. C. Clavin says:

    Rice and Goodell are completely separate issues.
    Goodell didn’t beat his wife.
    He apparently buried evidence in order to be lenient with a star player accused of beating his wife.

  12. C. Clavin says:

    @C. Clavin:
    By the way…I’m close friends with two different people that show up in that bit.
    Not that it matters. Just sayin’

  13. Jr says:

    @Mr. Prosser: Unless Goodell is caught lying, he isn’t going anywhere. The owners aren’t going to push him out.

  14. Tyrell says:

    @Jr: It also makes one wonder why all the attention and blame now on Commissioner Goodell. They made some misjudgements along the way. How about police action in this ? Could Rice be arrested ?
    I wonder how the NFL compares to other professional leagues concerning consequences for this sort of thing: MLB, NBA, NHL, PBA, PGA, NASCAR, WWE, tennis.

  15. C. Clavin says:

    Well I think that’s the point. The police and the league and the Ravens went very easy on Rice…because he’s a star. Now…because everyone else in the world has seen the tape…which is sickening…the NFL has over-reacted. (But we’ve known all along Rice knocked his wife out.)
    As for the police…no, Rice can’t be arrested…that would in fact be double-jeopardy.
    But did Goodell hide the tape? We may never know…but it sure looks like it.

  16. bill says:

    @C. Clavin: “southpark gay”, i don’t “fear” homosexuals.

  17. Eric Florack says:

    Let’s ponder this from the standpoint of equality for just a moment.
    If Jayna Rice had knocked her then-to-be husband out, we’d not be discussing this.

    Speaking of not discussing such attacks, did you hear about the group of black youth showing up at a Memphis shopping center and punching the lights out of several white passer-bys, the other day? No?

    Gee, I wonder why. And, I wonder, why we’re 27*7/wall-to-wall on the one and not the other. Don’t you?

    There are a few elements of this, including those double standards that strike me as someone *needing* this story out there. Holders involvement is one such. So, Dversion? Retaliation? (Against Goodel, for example, for the Redskins name change attempt that blew up in the faces of the regime?) I mean, someone’s really pissed at the NFL and Goodel in particular,, and I doubt its the owners.

  18. Tyrell says:

    @Andre Kenji: Most people now have had enough of the saturation coverage of this. It seems it got to the point of absurdity as a steady stream of any one and everyone came on tv to give their opinions. Every one was jumping on Ray, and suddenly the focus jumped to the commissioner with all these demands that he resign. Attention spans are short and now that the football season is underway, baseball playoffs are around the corner, NASCAR is heating up; well it is understandable the networks have gone back to the ISIS crisis, and sports networks have returned to – sports !