Rob Parker is a symptom, not the disease. In spite of ESPN’s decision to suspend him for his absurd comments about Robert Griffin III, Parker’s presence or absence from the network is not going to cure the malady that infects any sports fan who has no choice but to use ESPN because it has such a wide-ranging hand in every sport.
Is Parker to blame for pushing the envelope with comments that were designed to provoke? Isn’t that the ESPN mandate? To get people to pay attention to them not with legitimate sports news and analysis, but by doing the equivalent of screaming “FIRE” in a crowded theater with impunity? So entwined with every aspect of sports, there’s no escaping ESPN. This makes Parker and his inept ilk in their employ all the more galling. They get away with this silliness, so why couldn’t they get away with deciding not to partake in this fire-stoking, and chose to provide quality and substance instead of resorting to antics like a bad Madonna outfit?
Parker maintains the inexplicable combination of knowing nothing about sports and writing in an amateurish, clumsy fashion. Yet he’s employed by ESPN and treated as one of their “signature” voices with a prominent platform. It’s just easier to find a stable of Rob Parkers than it is to find people who will be able to express themselves in a manner befitting such a pulpit.
Of course Parker’s responsible for what he says, but those claiming he should be fired for his offensive and borderline incoherent statements are missing the point of the entire Parker package: Why is he employed by ESPN in the first place? How can it be that the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports” is so incapable of hiring talented, intelligent, knowledgeable people who can draw an audience without having the content secondary to numbers they’re able to accumulate through cheap tactics.
ESPN need only look at the foundation of today’s NFL to understand the narrow difference between “look at me!!!” to accrue a brief burst of activity like staring at a train crash, and attracting a consistent viewer/readership.
The late Hall of Fame NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was a public relations man and knew how to create a business that would provide thrills and watchable sports action without turning it into a circularly ridiculous entity doomed to fail. Tex Schramm was also in publicity (in fact, he hired Rozelle with the Rams) and knew that in order to succeed, he also had to sell. With the Cowboys, that’s what he did: he sold an image. Tom Landry was the football guru; Gil Brandt the personnel “genius”; the Cowboys, with their space-age uniforms, unique style implemented by the religious, stoic Landry and moniker of “America’s Team” wouldn’t have gone anywhere if the product wasn’t high quality. In addition to creating an image and making money, the team won, so Schramm wasn’t tricking anyone with trash. There’s a fine line between sale and scam and ESPN crossed that line long ago. Whether or not they’re aware of it is the important question.
ESPN could learn the separation between entertainment and rubbernecking by examining how the NFL became what it is today in large part because of Schramm and Rozelle.
Rather than emulate the NFL, ESPN has chosen to copy the doomed Vince McMahon project the XFL in which pro wrestling announcers were shoved into a “professional” football broadcast booth and Jesse “The Body” Ventura (then Governor of Minnesota) tried to start a pro wrestling style feud with Rusty Tillman, one of the head coaches who wanted to coach football and not undertake a starring role in McMahon’s carnival. It didn’t work. There has to be something to cling to for the fans to stay and watch. Like McMahon’s main moneymaking venture, the WWE, you know what it is when watching it and if the viewer chooses to suspend disbelief and become invested in the canned nature of professional wrestling, it’s a wink-and-a-nod contract made with the show itself. There’s something dirtier about ESPN when they’re hiring the likes of Parker and encouraging these types of comments, then hanging Parker out to dry when the comments are deemed as “offensive.”
The difference between what Schramm and Rozelle built in the NFL is that if you pull back the curtain behind all the hype, there’s substance for the old-school football fan to still watch the game if they’re not interested in the sideshow. Is that the case with ESPN? Do they have anything substantive—from their intentions to their implementation—left? What is their long-term purpose apart from ratings, webhits, and the higher advertising rates that come along with it?
For every quality person ESPN has working for them, there are ten who shouldn’t be allowed to write a personal blog, let along have a forum on ESPN. Parker is one of those people. The only time people care about what he says is when he says what he said yesterday; they’re certainly not going to him for sports insight because he doesn’t have any, nor does he have the skills to present his non-existent knowledge in an engaging way. If he was able to do that, he’d be due a certain begrudging credit for being able to write. But he can’t, so there’s no reason whatsoever for him to be there.
Firing him will placate the masses who are calling for his dismissal as if it would accomplish something, but Parker isn’t the problem. ESPN is. If they fire Parker, they’ll simply replace him with someone else. I’d say whomever it is that replaces Parker couldn’t possibly be worse, but this is ESPN and if any company has the skills and history of discovering the newest-latest in lowest common denominator, it’s them.