Something extremely strange happened last week, and I’m a little surprised more people didn’t pick up on it: ESPN admitted it might have overhyped something. I know, right?
The network of “The Decision” and backbackbackbackbackpleasekillmebackbackbackabulletwillmakethispainend and Ed Werder basically living in the back of Brett Favre’s truck for four years has taken a good look at itself and decided that, well, it’s possible they might have overdone it with the Tim Tebow business.
You might remember this summer, when the network, boasting of “unprecedented training camp access,” broadcast live from New York Jets camp in Cortland, N.Y., for two weeks, all because of the Tim Tebow trade. At one point, as Deadspin amusingly pointed out, ESPN had pretty much its entire staff wish Tebow a happy birthday on camera, for reasons I wouldn’t dare try to fathom. For a while, I was beginning to wonder if Sal Paolantonio, who spent nearly three weeks at Jets camp and looked absolutely miserable about it, was reporting live as an ESPN producer menacingly waved a gun at him just off camera.
I couldn’t find a single human being -- Jets fan, Tebow fan, person who just enjoys watching people wished a happy birthday by strangers -- who thought ESPN’s coverage of Tebow wasn’t profoundly embarrassing for everyone involved. As it turns out, some people at ESPN felt it was over the top, as well. Here’s what “SportsCenter” executive producer Mark Gross told Newsday’s Neil Best last week:
“Honestly, a couple of weeks in we pulled back because it did feel at that point, in training camp, that we weren't reporting anything all that new. We just didn't need to be there every single day. … I wouldn’t say it failed, but we tried something, wanted to be aggressive with the coverage. … We learned over the first couple weeks this is pretty good. We also learned, you know what, we don’t need to be embedded with the Jets. We'll do just fine if we're not.”
But to blame this entirely on ESPN is to miss the point. After all, Gross gave that quote to Best, an excellent reporter whom I’ve known for several years. I just ran into him about a month ago … at Jets camp, where he was there on “Tebow duty,” as he told me, for Newsday. I laughed and sighed. New York magazine sent me there for the exact same reason. To make fun of ESPN for its overkill is to ignore our own complicity in it.
The Tebow thing was another example of ESPN’s chicken-or-egg influence on the sports media world. Were we there because Tebow on the Jets was such a big story? Or were we there because ESPN told it us it was such a big story? Or did ESPN not think it was a big story, but felt obliged to treat it as one because they thought we all did? We’re down the rabbit hole here. Reality morphs. There is no spoon.
I think now that the dust has settled we can all agree that this was, without question, not a big story. Don’t get me wrong: Tebow remains a hugely popular athlete, and the “quarterback” “controversy” -- definitely one of those times when it feels like you should put both words in quotes -- between him and Mark Sanchez had a certain irresistibility, in a rubbernecking sort of way. But the way we -- ESPN and the rest of the media -- treated what was essentially just a minor trade of a backup quarterback is not going to go down as one of our profession’s prouder moments.
As it happens, I spent Sunday in the press box at MetLife Stadium, watching the Jets, somewhat inexplicably, pound the bejeezus out of the Buffalo Bills. If the offseason coverage were to be believed, this should have been the sporting event of the day, the week, the month, the year. The number of man-hours spent covering Tebow exceeded just about every sports story for the last month other than maybe Stephen Strasburg; MetLife should have been the Thunderdome on Sunday.
It was definitely not the Thunderdome. The Jets barely sold out the game -- this jived with what I saw in Cortland; the supposed teeming masses of crazed Tebow apostles always seemed to be raiding camp more in theory than in practice -- and I saw far more Namath/Revis/Sanchez/Martin jerseys than Tebow gear. More to the point: The press box wasn’t even full.
That’s right: As it turns out, the media actually overhyped a story to the media. It is quite the thing when you beat a story into the ground so senselessly that you, yourself, get bored with it. Many fans accused the media of being the only people who cared about the Tebow story. The fans were wrong: The media didn’t care either. We all just thought we were supposed to care. You could sense this from the generally joyless coverage of Tebow and the Jets in the offseason; one of the main reasons you saw so much Jets backlash, I think, was to somehow punish them for putting all of us through this. When, of course, we did this to ourselves.
I’m not sure what everyone expected to happen anyway.
Ordinarily, our hype previews something. An eight-hour pregame show before the Super Bowl might seem insane, but at least there’s an actual game. Tebow ended up in the game for exactly nine plays, eight at quarterback and one at tight end. He didn’t do well, but he didn’t do anything wrong either. He did not bring the Jets back to a last-second win; he did not point heavenward and did not receive a groovy Jesus thumbs-up in return. He was just another guy playing football. To paraphrase what Tebow himself might say: Thank God.
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For what it’s worth, I actually thought our New York magazine package was really good. Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email, or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.