Stephen A. Smith has a particular way of doing things, and the way he says MJ is no different. He emphasizes the J, not the M, so it’s M-J instead of the usual MJ that we civilian idiots favor when talking about the best player and worst dresser who ever lived. That enunciative choice is one of those things that is easy not to notice in normal circumstances. Now that sports are cancelled and the first hour of First Take on ESPN is nothing but promotion for the network’s bloated Last Dance documentary, though, that non-standard M-J utterance stands out a bit more.
There’s a perverse satisfaction in watching First Take these days. The experience is like watching the standard sports fantasy scenario—yesteryear’s best teams against todays, answering all those unanswerable questions—playing out in uncanny reverse. We instead get to watch the great sports opiners of today debate the great teams of yesteryear. Have you ever wondered what your life would’ve been like if Max and Stephen A. were around to scream at you about the ‘95-96 Chicago Bulls? Well, I’ve got some great news, because there’s going to be 10 hours of it this week, from 10 until noon. This is only great news for those looking to add yet another degree of monotony to their already abysmally repetitive existence in social isolation. It’s not great TV, exactly, but it’s what we’ve got.
Like the only-somewhat-more-real financial markets, the take economy has imploded since sports went into pandemic hibernation; in the marketplace of spicy takes as in the stock market, the idea of there being anything real or concrete undergirding it all now looks wildly, hilariously suspect. When the stock market bounces back despite millions filing for unemployment each week and tens of thousands already dead, it’s fair to wonder whether the whole fucking thing is made up in the first place—or, if not made up, what it actually considers valuable. Similarly, watching Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman debate sports history exposes the bankruptcy of the modern “Embrace Debate” direction of sports programming. Eventually this will all be settled, and the discussion around it will look even sillier than it already does. Until then, the shouting must go on.
This has been obvious for a while, but the first week without sports helped drive it home. The debate boys spent 30 minutes of their two-hour show discussing whether or not Tom Brady should’ve signed with the Tennessee Titans, which appeared to be a scenario they invented solely to have something to talk about. Max Kellerman questioned whether the government was telling the truth about COVID-19 testing availability by way of saying that he didn’t believe the NBA season would resume. Each segment has had the same strange energy of a conference call, with pregnant pauses littered throughout resulting from a combination of connectivity issues and the agonizing internal search for anything meaningful to say out loud. Perhaps worst of all, while the fellas yell about whether or not the NBA season should be cancelled or merely postponed, you remember why they’re having this debate in the first place and if you’re lucky, the terror will be smoothed over by the relief of having not wasted your life paying attention to the spectacle.
If your sole job is to promote the sports that support your network’s revenue, there is no more meaning for you. A world without sports is a world that no longer requires the hot takes once designed to provoke or taunt or entice viewers to watch; the people that watched soley so they could tweet “you were wrong” at the debate guys now have nothing else to watch. This has driven some of sports media’s D-list freaks to go where the action is. That is, towards armchair epidemiology. The resulting sort has exposed the difference between the ones that are doing this for fun and/or a paycheck and the truly demented hucksters.
I’ve always been struck by a profile of the Monday Night Football crew that appeared in The New Yorker in 2011. In particular, there’s a passage that describes Ron Jaworski practicing his lines from the open about Tyler Palko. Viewers need to believe that they’re watching something interesting, which meant it was Jaworski’s job to convince them that watching Tyler Palko is actually just that, despite all evidence to the contrary (Hail to Pitt!). Jaworski gets down on himself, unconvinced by his own line reading; the story describes him repeating “I’m excited about Tyler Palko” until he gets it right.
The moment sheds some light on what seems like a dark existence: pretending to care about dull and unworthy things, just to keep others engaged. Whether that’s being done on behalf of a network or your own psychotic need for attention, it seems downright Sisyphean to wake up each day and craft new takes that you may not even personally believe, all of it in service of generating a few viral clips that disappear into the ether by day’s end. And then you get up and do it all again tomorrow. It’s particularly bleak when you consider how many people actually care about this shit. Do you know anyone that wants to actively argue with you about sports, like to the point of raising their voice or making things uncomfortable? Do you actively avoid that person, or idly imagine what it might be like to throw yourself into front of traffic whenever they start speaking with you?
It’s fun to watch sports. It can be fun to talk about sports. It is never fun to actively debate sports, because who the fuck cares? The only people that actually enjoy debates are the type of weird freaks you’d avoid in public at all costs—people who describe themselves as “wonks” or people that buy merch from Ben Shapiro’s dopey website. Debate of this kind is for people who believe that the point of life is to find the right answer, and assume there’s an actual answer to be found, and won’t rest until you finally agree that theirs is the likelier one. Few things make a quest for answers look more futile than the blank and ruthless pressure of plague, and it’s hard to imagine anything less suited for the moment than the men who make their livings in the answer business—tens of thousands dead, two middle-aged men in suits debating whether M-J was what we all already know he was.