What We Talk About When We Talk About Colin Cowherd

It's comforting to see ESPN's Colin Cowherd as a mutant, because he acts like one. But he's also an incarnation of a whole horrible ethos.
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This past Friday, Colin Cowherd sat down with Bill Simmons to talk mostly about Colin Cowherd. They also kicked around a few theories about the mutation of LeBron’s competitiveness gene and the link between fascism and food. In tone, the podcast is more or less what one would expect: two hip-shooters a-hip-shootin’, and some excessive mutual admiration—Cowherd talks about Simmons’s perspective and craft as if Simmonsian should join Kafkaesque as an OED-approved literary adjective; Simmons gushes over Cowherd’s ability to... talk to himself for nine minutes at a time. For my part, I cleaned my apartment and occasionally yelled “wrong!” from across the room.

I listened to the interview because I’m not looking to set my brain on fire with intellectual stimulation while drinking gin and scrubbing cat piss out of my bathroom floor on a Friday evening, but also because I wanted to listen to two powerful media figures I dislike talk shop. I think both Cowherd and Simmons, in their own ways, are what’s wrong with sports media, which in turn makes for an increasingly facile and (in Cowherd’s case) needlessly hostile mainstream sports discourse. I’ve called Simmons “either a hack or a complete asshole,” and Cowherd, along with his louder, more malignant cousin Skip Bayless, isn’t in the sports business so much as he’s in the infuriation business. He peddles haughty reductiveness and calls it honesty, then bats around an overmatched simpleton from Steak’s Landing, Wisconsin for a few minutes before returning to his now-basically-show-long rant about Carmelo Anthony’s facial expressions and how, he doesn’t care what you think, he’s gonna go on pronouncing it “jih-roh.”

The podcast isn’t uninteresting, which Cowherd might claim is the entire battle. He exclaims at one point “What’s wrong with being interesting?” which is exactly the sort of unassailable bully logic he employs on his radio show. Of course there is obviously nothing wrong with being interesting—what with it being definitionally positive—but here, Cowherd isn’t talking about the Lakers’ playoff chances for the third time in four days or staging overrated/underrated debates about literally anything. He’s talking about himself, and why he is the way he is, what he believes in. This is engaging enough: Colin Cowherd the human being is unlike anyone I’ve ever met. If he wants to talk about what makes him strange, I’ll listen.

What makes him strange—wrong, but also strange—is that he sees a direct correlation between popularity and, if not quite quality, some inherent goodness. What Cowherd’s worldview will not entertain is the existence of lucrative, mainstream-approved mediocrity. We’re coffee beans, he claims, and we all want to be at Starbucks because they’re a bigger operation than Caribou Coffee. He then mocks Keith Olbermann, who can and should be mocked, for moving from MSNBC to Current TV. But Cowherd doesn’t snicker at how Olbermann blowharded his way to self-parody. Rather, the bloviating lout’s—to be clear, because this is confusing: I’m talking about Olbermann—only error was moving to a smaller media platform, which somehow made him worse at his job? It’s hard to know what Cowherd is saying, exactly, but it’s definitely derisive: “You can say, ‘I’m an independent thinker!’ Good luck at Current TV.” As he says “independent thinker,” Cowherd almost definitely delivers a limp-wristed gesticulation a la Weekend Update’s Drunk Uncle.

Of course, Cowherd doesn’t bother to fill in the gaps in his logic. I think even he would not, if pressed, act out an endorsement of Mr. Show’s “More Money Equals Better Than” sketch. Perhaps his take on Olbermann’s media exile is a tacit admission that he knows no one in the sports or political punditry business is actually good enough at their jobs to be considered irreplaceable, or even particularly valuable. I wonder if any viewers really care that Olbermann has been replaced by Horn-Rimmed MSNBC-bot No. 341. The partisan hackery that replaced him contains fewer two-dollar words, but more or less the same content. And maybe there’s an underlying anxiety in Cowherd’s assertion that viewership and listenership are the only metrics that matter in his profession. If he were doing this for much less money and many fewer ears, I wonder if it would corrode his sense of self; I wonder if that sense of self depends heavily on being the best caller-goader in the biz.

***

Over the course of the conversation, Cowherd gradually lays his superficial motivations bare: he’s here to be your preacher or antichrist. Even the way he explains how he has become a more empathetic person speaks to that grandiose crassness. Liberals, he posits, tend to get a smidgen more benefit of the doubt when they say something uncouth than conservatives do, because they belong to a political faction that’s historically more inclusive. I’m nodding here because I think Cowherd is saying a true thing, but then the other shoe drops. Cowherd has tried to be more empathetic over the past few years, he says, because it buys him a pass when he “steps over the line.” (So much talk of line-toeing on this podcast because remember: dumb-provocative = smart-interesting. Embrace Debate and all that.)

Let’s not discuss at length that Cowherd, when he says some critics were right about his not treating athletes like people or being respectful of said people perhaps having backgrounds different from his, is probably talking about Tommy Craggs’s excoriation of his race-baiting bullshit about John Wall. That’s awful, the act and his understanding of it, but it’s a minor act of dishonesty that Cowherd performs on a minute-to-minute basis. Rather, what’s galling here is that Cowherd thinks empathy is a form of credit you get to cash in when you’re a jerk. It’s the “Well, I’m not a bigot” card that idiots play when they’ve said something bigoted, some photo taken at a party that proves, because of the race of the other person in the frame, that you could never be a racist. Cowherd is too stupid to understand that there is a difference between saying an awful thing and being an awful thing.

Racism, sexism, etc. are things that very smart and not-at-all bigoted people can participate in, willfully or otherwise. I’ve said some wrongheaded, overgeneralized shit about groups of people, and here’s what you do about that, if you’re not an asshole: you say that you’re sorry and that, upon reflection, what you said was hurtful and wrong. You self-educate and try to move forward a better person. Any good feminist or queer advocate or antiracist will tell you: fighting the patriarchy is a continual learning process, but worth the struggle.

And what you don’t do: You don’t hide behind the fact that you’re not a bigot, because you’re probably not and you don’t mean to act like one. Maybe you’re a dude whose whole business is pissing people off and one day, instead of offending Buffalo Bills fans, you offend black people. Maybe you should reevaluate the career path that has led you to say so many terrible things about anyone at all, but that’s Cowherd’s own lumpy bed of money to make and lie in, and on which to toss and turn if it chews him up so badly.

***

Simmons, for his part, is an obsequious interviewer. He just tacks addendums to whatever Cowherd says and doesn’t ever invite, let alone force, Cowherd to further explain himself. In fact, he offers up some problematic theories of his own, chief of which is that everyone has a schtick. Well, not a schtick exactly, but Simmons likes to use that word to describe a lot of concepts that don’t match up with its definition.

Simmons equates ESPN beating a story—say, Brett Favre’s quasi-retirement or Tim Tebow’s continued existence—into the ground with an outlet like Deadspin constantly bashing ESPN. This is not altogether wrong: when Deadspin doesn’t have anything to talk about, it can seem as if they needlessly go media headhunting. One could argue that this is their schtick. But a sense of scale is crucial here. Deadspin is a reasonably popular online sports tabloid; ESPN is a billion-dollar behemoth with way more sway over the sporting discourse than Deadspin or any of its bloggy, stone-throwing relatives. When I wrote for Deadspin, I had to explain to most people what it was; asking if someone is familiar with ESPN is like asking if they’ve heard of this transportation method called “airplanes.” The difference between ESPN’s coverage of sports and its critics’ coverage of ESPN is the difference between text and critic, or shark and remora if you’re feeling uncharitable: one dwarfs the other.

Simmons also points out that Sports Illustrated media writer and frequent ESPN critic Richard Deitsch writes for a magazine that runs a swimsuit issue every year, which would be a totally valid point if ESPN didn’t spend every single day of the year appealing to the same doltish amateur masturbators. ESPN undermines its ability and neglects its responsibility to speak intelligently about sports matters on an hourly basis; SI undermines Richard Deitsch once per annum. (This is also has nothing at all to do with, as Simmons calls it, “schtick,” but whatever.)

Simmons further asserts that “the single best quality you can have” in sports media is to “take angles.” (To be fair, he walks this back, saying that you can also be consistently funny or write long, thoughtful features, which sound like way better and less soul-sucking alternatives to being a machine extruding #HotSportsTakes.) I know what Simmons means here: there’s merit to a writer or media personality who makes their audience think about sports in a way they otherwise would not. It’s just a good idea in general to consume media produced by people who think differently than you do, lest you live trapped in a grumpy, Billy Packer-ish echo chamber.

All true enough, but he seems to imply that Cowherd’s polemics are actually interesting. “Are winning streaks overrated?”—one of the actual questions Cowherd claims to have spent whatever amount of time discussing with his audience on his radio program—is a narrow and inane question that also only allows for a yes or no answer. It’s not a question like “How should we retool the NCAA?” that allows (and requires) the responder to give a complex answer. It’s a multiple choice question to shout about.

Herein lies the central flaw of the Embrace Debate ethos: it’s not actually debate. It’s the creation of false binaries and the funnelling of dopey opinions through exceedingly narrow passageways. It’s “Who Ya Got?” and tactless iconoclasm. Its structure is rigid and requires its participants to stand at one pole or the other, never anywhere near the middle, and so it excludes questions that have more than two or three rote answers. Worst of all, it supposes sports are not interesting enough on their own, that viewers, readers, and listeners won’t stick around if the opinions aren’t extreme enough. It assumes sports talk needs all sorts of additives: play-acting, hyperbole, and, yes, schtick. It sees sports—and specifically sports fandom—only as tribalism, and that’s depressing, especially since the approach is apparently lucrative as hell.

***

Toward the end of the podcast, when Simmons and Cowherd stopped talking about sports media and start talking about sports themselves, I began to lose interest. Simmons throws out a theory that the greatest NBA players of all-time were, to a man, over-competitive weirdos, and that, to become truly great, LeBron James had to spend two years getting beaten up for The Decision and his play in the 2012 Finals. Cowherd agreed: for LeBron to make the leap from very good loser to true champion, he needed to get the shit kicked out of him by fans and the media. Only through developing resentment for his critics did he become one of the best basketball players we’ve ever seen.

I don’t quite think Simmons and Cowherd are wrong, but their answers reveal a certain bias that runs through both of their oeuvres and explains them as, to use Cowherd’s word, “artists.” They both graft their preconceived notions onto reality in order to explain it. In other words, neither of them would entertain, unless someone else brought it up, that maybe LeBron evolved differently. Maybe he doesn’t play with a Jordan- or Russell-like anger. Perhaps he’s merely very competitive and breathtakingly talented as opposed to being driven by a sociopathic disdain for failure.

But you don’t get broad-mindedness from Simmons or Cowherd. One’s a believer, one’s an evangelist. They’re two of mainstream sports media’s most static human beings. As I finished wiping down my kitchen counter, I wondered why, and how, this could possibly be what so many people want.


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