Hypocritical to the core, ESPN opted on a busy news Saturday to lead “SportsCenter” with an Ultimate Fighting title card. This decision lends disturbing credibility to a twisted and potentially deadly exercise that features thunderous kicks and punches to the head, which no doubt leaves combatants with brain trauma. The National Football League, as ESPN has tried to educate the masses in its reporting on the subject, is undergoing a long-range ideological transformation because of a life-and-death concussion crisis.
But by preferring to tap into a much-desired youthful demographic that follows UFC and Mixed Martial Arts, ESPN is prioritizing money-making over responsible programming and news judgment. And that is called selling out, another disgrace at a juggernaut network that doesn’t know what it wants to be.
It’s no secret that the founder of this mayhem, UFC president Dana White, is sitting atop a multi-billion-dollar business and knows how to lure eyeballs. But that doesn’t mean legitimate sports networks have to bite. It was embarrassing enough that Fox Sports 1, desperately trying to attract an audience that has yet to show up, launched last summer with a UFC lead-in to its inaugural news program. ESPN, established for decades as the runaway leader in sports television, shouldn’t stoop to such stunts to appease White for future rights negotiations. With or without UFC, ESPN will continue to dominate the industry. It doesn’t need White and his Octagon brutality.
Yet if you haven’t noticed, there are two ESPNs playing a gnarly game of philosophical tug-o-war. There is the high-brow division that wants to be a journalistic beacon and be accountable in its regular sporting fare. And there are the profit-drivers at Disney Co., who care only about the bottom line. We saw it come up in a different context recently, when ESPN executives caved to power-lunch pressure from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and dropped their affiliation with a revealing PBS-produced documentary on NFL head trauma. The much-criticized pullout, reported by the New York Times, left an indelible perception that ESPN cares more about serving its business partners — it has a $15.8-billion deal with the NFL through 2021 — than the almost 100 million viewers who pay nearly $6 a month in subscriber fees for the network whether they watch it or not.
Leading a supposedly prestigious newscast with UFC Is a conflict of a different animal. ESPN is courting White’s product and, in the process, glorifying the same competitive violence it condemns in its reporting on “Outside The Lines” and other investigative platforms — that is, when a bedfellow like Goodell doesn’t shut down the journalism. I have no issue with running two Saturday night developments — Anderson Silva screaming in agony after breaking his leg in a middleweight title fight, Ronda Rousey defending her UFC title — very low in the one-hour “SportsCenter” broadcast.
Leading the broadcast?
Shame, again, on the four-letter monster.