Truth be told, nobody was really interested before Monday in whether ESPN basketball analyst Chris Broussard thinks homosexuality is a sin. For the most part, he’s content to weigh in on whether the Lakers need to make a change before the trade deadline, or Oklahoma City has enough firepower to win a playoff series with star Russell Westbrook out of the lineup.
Still, there was Broussard being asked to discuss the news that NBA center Jason Collins had revealed he’s gay, becoming the first U.S. player in a major professional team sport to do so. And Broussard responded by unleashing this lesson on biblical theology: “If you’re openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality, (but) adultery, fornication, premarital sex between heterosexuals … I believe that’s walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ,” he said. “I would not characterize that person as a Christian, because I don’t think the Bible would characterize them as a Christian.”
Update: Asked to comment about criticism of Broussard’s remarks, ESPN sought to have it all ways in one statement, which read: “We regret that a respectful discussion of personal viewpoints became a distraction from today’s news. ESPN is fully committed to diversity and welcomes Jason Collins’ announcement.”
In other words, we respect Broussard’s right to his opinions; we just sort of wish they hadn’t become a “distraction” — which amounts to PR-speak for “Let’s try to make this go away without potentially offending anyone else,” on either side of the debate.
Now, Broussard is obviously not alone in these views — although if the NBA ever initiates a policy against premarital sex and fornication, good luck fielding one team, much less 30. But the real question is whether he, and ESPN, were equipped in journalistic terms to deal with a news story that went beyond the usual X’s and O’s.
In this regard, watching the sports network try to navigate the Collins story brought to mind another bit of breaking news playing out almost simultaneously – the New York Jets splitting with quarterback Tim Tebow, who is as well known for his devout evangelical Christianity as his exploits on the field. Whatever you think of Tebow’s merits as a player, the NFL’s heightened ratings with him had at least as much to do with those rooting for or against him because of his faith, an issue football analysts have often struggled to put into the proper context.
So it goes with the uncomfortable juxtaposition of sports and larger societal issues, whether that’s gay rights, religion, big business and labor matters, or NBC’s Bob Costas discussing America’s relationship with guns. (Notably, ESPN did suspend analyst Rob Parker in December for comments he made about the “blackness” of Washington Redskins QB Robert Griffin III.)
The truth is sports media — including sportstalk radio, which is almost invariably the shallowest part of the media gene pool – are frequently in over their heads when called upon to deal with anything of greater consequence than who won last night’s game. Perhaps that’s why a random sampling of the local L.A. sportstalk shows Monday found most seeming to be more interested in dissecting the abrupt end to the Lakers’ season than the implications of the Collins announcement.
For now, though, the Collins story is big news (he’ll appear on “Good Morning America” Tuesday), and ESPN — the biggest player in the world of sports journalism — is going to have to cover it.
The question is whether the channel needs to look beyond its customary assortment of talking heads, or otherwise risk more exchanges like the one of which Broussard was a part on Monday. Again, Broussard has every right to his personal opinions, but what he expressed goes well beyond his role as an expert on basketball.
From its weekly sports journalism showcase to its “30 for 30″ documentaries, ESPN does some yeoman work. So far, however, in regard to the Collins story the channel and its hoops crew clearly look way out of their league.