When ESPN commentator Rob Parker said last week on First Take that he doesn’t think Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is authentically black because, among other things, Griffin is engaged to a white woman, ESPN suspended Parker and tried to distance itself from the comments.
But Parker’s comments aren’t going to be easy for ESPN to sweep under the rug. Because Parker’s comments have led to a closer examination within ESPN of the ways that employees who make a habit of saying outrageous things are damaging the brand.
Richard Deitsch of SI.com spoke to several ESPN employees who said they’ve had enough of the Worldwide Leader bringing in people like Parker to shout offensive things on the air in a cheap ratings grab, employees who say that ESPN must re-examine its growing “debate” format, which makes a mockery of the very word “debate” by resembling something closer to Jerry Springer and Maury Povich than Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.
“I don’t wish to be lumped in with that nonsense,” one ESPN employee told Deitsch.
Other ESPN employees have noted that Parker’s comments actually aired three times before network management admitted the comments were offensive: ESPN First Take airs live in the morning, then re-airs immediately following the live airing, and then later in the day ESPN2 airs Best of First Take. Parker’s comments appeared not only on the live airing but also on the re-airing and the “best of” show. So not only did no one at ESPN think to remove Parker’s comments from the re-airing, but someone at ESPN made an affirmative decision to give Parker’s comments the “best of” seal of approval.
“They have created a culture of this,” another ESPN employee told Deitsch. “The fact that they didn’t remove it from the re-air proves their intent wasn’t to do anything.”
Eventually, ESPN faced criticism from enough quarters that they had to do something. But the bigger question is this: Why did ESPN hire Parker in the first place?
Parker’s entire approach to working in the media, dating to his pre-ESPN days as a Detroit News columnist, has always been to draw attention to himself by making provocative statements. When covering press conferences, Parker’s specialty is asking questions designed not to gather information, but to scream, “Look at me!” The most famous example came late in the 2008 NFL season, when Parker asked former Lions coach Rod Marinelli, whose son-in-law was the team’s defensive coordinator, “Do you wish your daughter would have married a better defensive coordinator?”
It was telling that Parker waited until Marinelli was about to be fired to frame his question in such a mean-spirited manner. The Lions went 0-16 that season, so it was certainly fair game to ask hard questions to Marinelli about how he assembled his coaching staff, but Parker isn’t the type to ask hard questions so much as he’s the type to ask rude questions. Parker knew Marinelli was down, so Parker decided to get one last kick in at Marinelli’s final post-game press conference.
That incident got Parker demoted by the Detroit News, and Parker resigned after he was demoted — apparently because he knew he had a plum job waiting for him at ESPN, which wanted someone who would favor provocation over civility. That’s what First Take does best. Or worst.
ESPN says it is reviewing Parker’s comments, but really, what is there to review? Parker believes there’s something wrong with a black man falling in love with a white woman. ESPN producers think Parker expressing that belief constitutes some of the best commentary that First Take has to offer. If ESPN wants to repent for airing those appalling views, and if ESPN wants to improve the discourse, there’s only one thing to do: Cancel First Take.