ESPN is both the best thing and the worst thing to ever happen to college sports.
The network showed a lot of absolute junk in its early days, but it also made people become accustomed to being able to see their college football and basketball teams more often. Although ABC and CBS had been the early leaders in college sports, ESPN pushed the boundaries and opened the floodgates. The rights money flowed freely to colleges and conferences.
Fans were happy. Wealthy major conferences and colleges were happy. Athletes were happy with the exposure. Coaches got paid more.
But ESPN was a relentless hype machine. In promoting its games, the push is all about the individual — the single achiever, the big star. And that has taken a lot of the enjoyment out of team sports for me.
ESPN and its competitors now celebrate individual performances more than team performances. A star athlete on a mediocre team will frequently get more coverage than a collection of hard-working players who aren’t superstars.
I have nothing against individual sports such as tennis or golf, but there is something special about the cooperation and trust that has to build between the players of successful teams. So while I can enjoy the spectacular play of a one-on-one artist such as LeBron James, I’m far more excited by teams that work together better, such as the Warriors.
One-on-one, I don’t know that any of the greats from the past could have stopped James, but a team of good players who trust each other and have good coaching can beat almost any team composed of a superstar and four sidekicks who don’t work well together.
ESPN has created this modern sports phenomenon, because it loves these superstar which it can promote individually. Even better, a culture of superstars competing — and even hating each other — helps TV networks sell dramatic stories to draw eyeballs.
It’s smart business for ESPN, but it’s not what I want sports to be. On Monday night, I saw a beautiful demonstration of what I want sports to be — from a starting quarterback who lost his job at halftime and watched a true freshman lead his team to a college football national title.
Jalen Hurts was the starting quarterback at Alabama from the second game of his freshman year. As a starter, he’s 25-2. He’s been a spectacular player and a strong leader on the team. He’s given Alabama a strong runner at quarterback, but he hasn’t developed enough as a passer yet.
Monday night against Georgia, the Bulldogs were selling out to stop the run. They were loading the box and basically daring Hurts to throw over them for touchdowns. The Georgia defenders didn’t believe he could beat them with this strategy. By halftime — when Alabama was down 13-0 and Hurts had completed only two passes — Tide coach Nick Saban agreed.
Hurts was replaced by freshman Tua Tagovailoa, a Hawaii native who had played only mop-up duty so far this year.
As a competitor, the benching had to sting for Hurts, but he didn’t show it. Instead, he showed encouragement and advice to Tagovailoa as the freshman brought Alabama back for a thrilling win. Tagovailoa hit a 41-yard-touchdown pass in overtime to win the game. As ESPN’s cameras watched Hurts for a negative reaction, Hurts remained thrilled about his team — and his teammate — in spite of going through the humiliation of losing his job to a player who brought the team back for a championship.
After the game, Hurts was gracious.
“It was important for me to stay true to myself and be the person I am, and be the leader I am, regardless of the circumstance,” Hurts said in a celebrating Alabama locker room. “It’s my duty to do things like that, and do all those things genuinely.”
It wasn’t the ending that Hurts wanted for himself. He would have loved to have been the winning quarterback being praised. But it was what his team needed, so it was a win for him, too.
“As a competitor, of course you want to stay in there,” Hurts said. “But as a team player, and as a leader, you’ve got to do what’s best for the team. If that was best for the team, then I support it completely.”
In a world that loves petulant superstars and worships arrogant celebrities, I love that class and humility.
I have no idea what the future holds for Jalen Hurts. He might have lost his starting role for Alabama or he might be competing for it again in the spring. Either way, he’s a remarkable young man who will be a tremendous success with whatever he does in the future. It made me proud to have him associated with my university.
The world needs to celebrates stars such as Jalen Hurts — superior athletes who still know what it means to be part of a team.
That’s a storyline I wish ESPN would do a better job of selling to a young generation of athletes who are far more inclined to say, “Look at me! I’m the one who matters!”