So, I was listening to Mike & Mike this morning, and, yeah, that was my first mistake. If there's a cooling core of dedicated journalism or critical thought hiding under a desk somewhere in a poorly lit broom closet in the basement's basement of ESPN, surely the farthest thing from it in the whole operation is First Take. Somewhere out there, occupying roughly the same turf, is Mike & Mike.
Maybe First Take is aimed at the kind of dipshit psycho sports fan who gets his team's logo tattooed somewhere where it can be seen during job interviews, wears a Tony Romo jersey and backwards visor to his own mother's funeral, has intensely strong feelings about Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel, and feels honestly that those feelings can best be articulated by the words "lol u fag" in the comments of an ESPN.com Matthew Berry fantasy football live chat. Mike & Mike isn't a whole lot better: their particular brand of aggressively neutered HR-vetted company line boilerplate is crafted carefully and aimed specifically at exactly the giant cross-section of American sports fans who would most like it if absolutely nothing about the world ever changed at all. Their position on pretty much everything remotely of consequence is I just don't know what you do or let's hold off on passing judgment. When they do express something with an actual shape or outline, it's generally of the I am squarely on the side of being liked by people and I am sure glad society has arrived at a state of perfection via this one minor sign of limited progress feel-good baloney, patting America on the back so we can quickly get back to talking about Chip Kelly's offense. Screw Mike & Mike. And that's before we get to the part where Mike Greenberg is making a sincere attempt to become the next Mitch Albom, with his horse-shit sentimental novels. Screw you, pal.
What Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith, Mike Golic, and Mike Greenberg have in common, here, and what will always be offered as their defense against this sort of criticism, is that this is what they were hired to do. After all, the E in ESPN stands for entertainment and the S stands for sports and the N doesn't even stand for news, and, even if it did, "news" is a value-neutral word that could be credibly said to describe enough of what ESPN offers anyway, without Golic and Greenberg making it their business to have anything of substance to say about really anything. Mike & Mike is part of ESPN's entertainment offering, and so its hosts are assigned the job of keeping the listener engaged. And they do! Who can deny they're successful at what they do?
They're successful because, it turns out, sports are our common distraction from the shit we don't want to be thinking about. That's no small thing: to the extent that ESPN and the only-slightly-broader sports entertainment enterprise as a whole has grown in relation to market demand, it can be said that the public's hunger for sports is nigh insatiable. In that context, it makes sense that the outermost non-event part of ESPN's programming across all platforms would be dedicated first to un-nuanced, broadly accessible, by-the-numbers entertainment product. It's not Mike Golic's nor Mike Greenberg's job to upset the good time. In fact, upsetting the good time with challenging or critical positions is almost certainly counterproductive to their fill-in-all-cracks mandate, unless, in doing so, a sport's popularity - and, by extension, ESPN's - can feed in one way or another off of the controversy.
And so, in its role as happy-go-lucky steward of the popularity of sports, Mike & Mike hosted Kirk Herbstreit this morning via telephone to discuss the goings on in college football. The conversation made its way eventually to the ugly situation in Michigan, where the football team is scuttling and the head coach and athletic director are under increasingly intense pressure from fans, alumni, and the student body to resign. Herbstreit had a few things to say about the situation. An important point he made is this one: dissatisfaction with Brady Hoke's performance is, at its roots, and, probably, most of its trunk and maybe even the majority of its branches and leaves, too, about Michigan's storied football team, you know, sucking. The Wolverines are performing poorly, and that's usually the kind of thing that gets a coach at a big-time football factory school like Michigan fired. If there are people who are genuinely upset about the in-game handling of Shane Morris's concussion last week, and if those people really want Hoke fired solely because of that event, and if that specific event has become a rallying moment around which the entire movement to oust Hoke has coalesced, it must still be acknowledged that the movement began before Shane Morris's concussion and is powered largely by people who would be calling for Hoke's head whether it had ever happened at all.
Herbstreit is probably right about all that. After all, this is certainly not the first or even the thousandth time that a prominent player has been left in a game or returned to a game despite showing obvious signs of having sustained a traumatic brain injury. It happened in the NFL just 10 days ago, when LaSean McCoy returned to play minutes after being visibly dazed by helmet-to-helmet contact. There's been no common call for Chip Kelly's head in the aftermath, no popular uprising whatsoever. In the NFL, where there is a much-ballyhooed sideline concussion protocol and, anyway, the players are paid good money to offer up their brains for our enjoyment, coaches and teams are at least somewhat protected from fan anxiety about the handling of concussions. When an NFL coach says the trainers make that call, well, they're telling us what we've already told ourselves.
There's more to that message, though, and it's what's not said that's most important. It's what we know about concussions and their long-term effects that is left unaddressed. The NFL's concussion protocol exists because the league is finally having to face the ugly reality that concussions are deadly serious brain injuries with the most dire of potential consequences. That's a medical truth. The medical community has already drawn a clear line from a person banging their head into something to long-term painful and destructive aftereffects. Football, as a sport and as a consumer product, has been called to action.
In the language of Mike & Mike and the broader sports/entertainment world, all of this can be packaged nicely behind the word serious. Concussions are a serious problem, leagues and teams and coaches and training staffs and fans and the media need to take them seriously. It's not untrue, exactly, but acting as though concussions and subconcussive-but-still-significantly-destructive head impacts can be dealt with responsibly inside a sport that continues to deal in exactly that currency, simply by being grim-faced and proactive in one half-a-loaf way or another, is inherently dishonest. But, of course, football is our distraction of choice and Mike & Mike aren't paid to remove our distraction. It falls, then, to the sports leagues to appear appropriately serious about an issue which the various Mike & Mike-level offerings have deemed serious, which is how we wind up with a sideline concussion protocol that makes it possible for a coach to say that a visibly dazed NFL player was allowed back onto the field moments later because the trainers make that call.
So, the subtext of that statement is this: it's not Chip Kelly's job to retrace the line that's already been drawn from what happens on the field to what happens when those players go home and eventually retire and have the whole rest of their lives to survive. It's his job to win a football game, and there are people way in the back over there whose job it is to worry about brain injuries. This is the reality of sports: in order for the operation to work, there have to be people for whom winning a football game is more important than the consequences of a concussion. Chip Kelly has to be able to look down at his play sheet and consider down and distance and come up with the right play and relay it into his quarterback before the play clock winds down to nothing. The trainers make that call. If they tell me he can go, I have to trust them. They are the ones to draw that line.
Except they're not really drawing that line. Even after we factor out the reality that players are not being diagnosed with concussions even after they've very obviously suffered concussions, removing a player from a game or two games or five games has absolutely nothing to do with addressing the fact that football causes brain injuries, and brain injuries lead to CTE, and CTE leads to bad times. Medical science tells us concussions and subconcussive hits are bad for the brain in the longterm. Our eyes and NFL injury reports tell us football causes concussions and subconcussive hits. That's the line. Continuing to play and coach and support the game in any capacity is an implicit willful journey up that line. It's not tracing the line, it's using it as a footpath. Removing a player from a game because he hurt his brain is very much the same thing as addressing spousal abuse by giving the victim a mouthguard.
Herbstreit's second point, and the reason for this whole thing, was this, and it's about what you'd expect it to be: He and Golic have been on the sidelines of big-time organized football, they know how it works, they know it's not the coach's job to monitor his players for concussions. If you think Brady Hoke should be fired for being a bad football coach - that is, for coaching a losing team - that's fine. Maybe you're right. But if you think Brady Hoke should be fired for not noticing his quarterback had suffered a traumatic brain injury, well, that's not Brady Hoke's job. There are personnel on the sideline whose job it is to monitor the players and look out for injuries and tell the coach who can and can't play. If no one told Brady Hoke that Shane Morris couldn't play, well, it's his job to play him. It was an ugly scene, and unfortunate, and concussions have to be taken seriously, but Brady Hoke was trying to get a first down.
All of this sort of raises the following question: whose job is it, ultimately, to trace that line? To take everything we know about football and head impacts and CTE and make the connection and keep it in mind and treat it as more important than the business of getting a first down? The whole thing, the actual thing, not the serious business of taking it seriously, but the actual truth, that playing football will turn you into Dave Duerson or Mike Webster or Junior Seau. It's not the coach's job, I suppose. It's obviously not the league's job. It's not even the job of the medical staff and trainers, empowered as they are by a protocol that has as its root assumption the continued existence of the very thing that causes the brain damage. It's not the job of the NFL's protocol. It's not the job of an athletic department. It's not the job of First Take or Kirk Herbstreit or Mike Golic or Mike Greenberg. It's not ESPN's job. It's not ABC's nor NBC's nor CBS's nor TNT's nor FOX's job. It's certainly not the fans' job. And it cannot be the players' job. The players, after all, are paid to play the game.
It turns out there is a whole huge apparatus sprung up around the public's interest in finding able-bodied young men and paying them to crash into each other without regard for the longterm consequences. Where there is money to be made doing such a thing, and pride earned, and success achieved, and accolades won, there will always be young men willing to do it. The apparatus has owners and leagues and scholarships and TV and radio stations and uniforms and stadiums and fans and websites and reporters and cheerleaders and morning drive-time radio shows hosted by goofball company men and none of it has as its function drawing a meaningful line between what happens on the field and what plagues those who participate once their bodies are too worn out to continue participating.
And so Herbstreit's second point was also correct: It's not Brady Hoke's job. In the whole big picture of American gridiron football, at long last, it's no one's job at all.