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January 19th / 20th, 2013

"Beauty and the (ESPN) Beast"

Robert Griffin III, Katherine WebbJanuary 8 was a red-letter day in sports, but not because of any on-field heroics or broken records. Instead, it will be remembered as the first time a cable network fired one broadcaster and apologized for another, all in one day. Even more bizarre, the two incidents were unrelated — sort of.

One month earlier, appearing on ESPN’s “First Take,” Rob Parker, a respected African-American sports journalist, was asked to comment on a statement that Washington Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III had made to USA Today. Said Griffin, “You don’t have to be defined by the color of your skin... you want to be defined by your work ethic, your character, your personality.” Instead of responding with praise for RG3’s racially blind proclamation, Parker treated his audience to an unabashed, and unexpected, analysis.

“The guys I talk to at the barbershop say he’s black, but he’s not really down with the cause... he’s not the guy you’d want to hang out with... he’s a cornball brother.”

The day after Parker’s “First Take” appearance, ESPN suspended him for one month. Rob took his slap on the wrist like a man, apologized for any unintended offense and looked forward to getting back to work in January. But last week, ESPN announced that it was firing Parker, saying, “Rob Parker’s contract expired at year’s end. Evaluating our needs and his work, including his recent RG3 comments, we decided not to renew.”

ESPN’s decision was cowardly and misdirected. After all, Parker had been hired to deliver honest, hard-hitting commentary, and “First Take”’s motto is “embrace the debate.” Moreover, ESPN failed to consider that Parker prefaced his remarks by telling his fellow debaters that he was recounting what he had heard “at the barbershop.” Thus, the firing was unnecessary and unjustified, and it stained the reputation of a fine journalist. But ESPN executives weren’t done with their quota of idiotic capitulations. On the same day they announced Parker’s firing, they took time to stain the reputation of another respected journalist.

The evening prior, veteran sportscaster Brent Musburger was doing play-by-play for the BCS championship game between Notre Dame and Alabama. What had promised to be a close match turned into a blowout early on, and that left ESPN’s producers scrambling to find something Musburger could comment on, in order to make the game seem less boring. Suddenly the producer (or some other ESPN staffer) discovered that Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron’s girlfriend, Katherine Webb, (an Auburn graduate) was in the stands. So the director was instructed to point the camera at her, and Brent was told to make a comment. Webb is a former Miss Alabama, so Musburger remarked how beautiful she was. The director kept coming back to a shot of Webb, and each time, Brent was expected to say something else. At one point, Musburger said, “You quarterbacks get all the good looking women. What a beautiful woman!” Musburger’s comment made an instant celebrity out of Webb, whose Twitter following went from 526 to nearly 150,000 within minutes.

The next day, ESPN’s monitors of political correctness were in full swing. While the ink was still drying on Rob Parker’s pink slip, the cable giant issued an apology for Musburger’s inappropriate remarks. Said ESPN spokesperson Mike Soltys, “We always try to capture interesting storylines. The relationship between an Auburn grad who is Miss Alabama, and the current Alabama quarterback, certainly met that test. However, we apologize that the commentary in this instance went too far, and Brent understands that.”

Apologize for what? Musburger was only doing what ESPN had told him to do. It wasn’t Brent who kept showing close-ups of Miss Webb. But no matter, the 73-year-old, award-winning journalist will forever be known as the dirty old man who dared to say that a beauty queen was beautiful. For the record, Webb later defended Musburger, saying, “It was kind of nice... For a woman to be called beautiful, I don’t see how that’s an issue... I don’t see why any woman wouldn’t be flattered by that.”

Back in the early 1960s, while calling a baseball game for CBS, Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese reportedly committed what is widely regarded as the funniest, unintentional ad-lib in history. The director kept showing an affectionate young couple in the stands, and Pee Wee observed, “It looks like he’s kissing her on the strikes.” Replied Dizzy without thinking, “And she’s kissing him on the balls.” Today you can say “balls” on TV, but if you’re black, you can’t talk about being black, and if you’re a man, you can’t say that a woman is beautiful. Where’s the sport in that?