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ESPN Is the Diva, Favre Is Just an Old Pro With a Bum Ankle

Mark Heisler
Contributor
Mark Heisler, who avoids writing about himself in the third person when possible, preferring the royal “we,” is a regular Truthdig contributor and a former NBA-at-large reporter for the Los Angeles Times…
Mark Heisler

Dog days from hell …

August is a weird time for Wall Street with all the traders at the beach, for psychiatry (see “What About Bob?”) and for sports too, with baseball, the only show in town, in the fifth month of its long march.

Showing the strain all around, ESPN, the national sports page, led the press in a third annual Brett Favre Watch, which just ended — mercifully — with Brett reporting a year to the day from last summer’s reporting date, when he arrived in Minnesota to take the Vikings to the NFC Finals, two years after coming out of retirement with the Packers to take the Jets nowhere.

That Jet stay is now memorable for more than that, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

If feeding frenzies accompany actual stories, the really funny ones are these, the we-have-nothing-better-to-do kind.

With the press now a giant paparazzo, athletes, no matter how gracious they may be — and Favre is — become divas.

That leaves correspondents like ESPN’S George Smith and Rachel Nichols stranded for weeks in the middle of summer in the aptly named Kiln, Miss., without a word from Favre, doing stand-ups in front of what must now be the best-known high school field in America.

If paparazzi don’t recognize nuance, this wasn’t 2008, when Favre first retired, learned the Packers could stop him from returning with division rival Minnesota and accepted a Jet offer.

Nor was it 2009 when Favre, coming off a failed comeback, took his time about launching a second with Minnesota.

After last season’s triumph with the Vikings, he said nothing about retiring, looking as if he intended to announce his return as soon as his surgically repaired ankle was OK and he knew he could make it through an NFL season at 41.

Unfortunately, the ankle took its time, during which Favre probably changed his mind 1,000 times, which may be why he didn’t feel like holding daily briefings in Kiln.

In the tradition of Greta Garbo, silence makes stories bigger. Mired in a slow news month, the Big Paparazzo did what it does when it has nothing … guess at something, blow it up, project from it and comment on it.

On Aug. 3, there was a bombshell report — Favre had sent text messages to teammates saying he was leaning toward retirement.

While all principals denied the story, ESPN’S “SportsCenter” devoted almost the entire show to a Favre retrospective (Brett’s legacy, can Tarvaris Jackson lead the Vikings, ad nauseam).

Then came the report the Vikings were offering Favre a $7 million raise to $20 million, and the inevitable talk-show firestorm told us that Favre, who was “all about seeking attention,” was now “all about the money” too.

Favre finally held still for ESPN’s Ed Werder — or at least didn’t hit the accelerator, sitting at the wheel of his SUV — noting matter-of-factly that he had every intention of returning if his ankle was OK (“If I’m healthy? Sure.”).

Tacitly acknowledging that it had jumped the shark yet again, “SportsCenter’s” Josh Elliott came back with a professorial perspective, although he left out the part about ESPN’S leading-lady responsibility:

As we’ve learned the last few years, no one can feed the 24-hour news cycle like Brett Favre.

Thus the latest Favre-ian saga, from reportedly notifying unidentified teammates of his plans to retire for the third time, to receiving an upgraded offer from the Vikings to return from $13 million to some $20 million, to then backpedaling, bum ankle and all, to a far hazier take on his own future, which was to say, “I’ll probably play if my ankle heals.”

All Favre did was wake up every day, hoping his ankle was better and finding it wasn’t, while media outlets chased their tails and blamed him for keeping them guessing.

Beware the ides of July and August.

LeBron James’ free-agent decision was not only significant, it came in early July, which is when the dog days start.

In the 10 months from September, when the NFL starts, to July, at least two of the four major leagues are playing, along with the NCAA football and basketball seasons being under way. For one glorious week in November, there are five (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, NCAA football).

In July and August, we’re on our own.

Realizing the Princess Diana coverage that James’ planned visits to the five teams on his list would get, LeBron invited them to Cleveland instead.

That left the press doing remotes outside his LRMR downtown office, with no word from LeBron, his people or team officials — leaving reporters and their frustrated bosses, who were footing the bill for this ennui, in an ever-nastier mood, grumbling all the while about James’ effrontery.

(With James about to make his announcement, my boss at the Los Angeles Times asked me if I wasn’t sick of this story. I said I’d better not be, after having written about this day for three years. My boss also told me that we’d have half the staff writing that night.)

Unfortunately, James didn’t realize giving his announcement exclusively to ESPN was even worse than a royal tour, and became the former golden child now known as “Queen James.”

At least Favre made the popular decision, deciding to return, so he got the big treatment, instead of being stoned.When a delegation of teammates went to Kiln and talked him into returning, local TV stations were on the tarmac in Minneapolis to shoot Favre’s arrival on a white corporate jet.

Walking through the camera crews, the players climbed into a black BMW SUV (with placekicker Ryan Longwell at the wheel, as local stories noted).

News helicopters then followed the SUV’s progress. Tweeted bemused Viking tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, “Where is the bronco.”

Of course, that was O.J. Simpson’s Bronco, in what was then unprecedented coverage of a sensational story but is now just routine.

At this point, “SportsCenter” tried something new — restraint — confining its reaction to a three-minute feature by Chris Connelly, even if he compared Favre’s indecision to Hamlet’s.

“Only it wasn’t his [Favre’s] tragedy,” narrated Connelly. “It was ours and yours. How much could we take?”

Actually, as painful as it is for the press, that’s why remotes have channel changers and could be one reason God invented fish.

Favre then held his usual happy-go-lucky news conference and went back to being the favorite he was before, almost.

Had his ankle improved enough to have announced his return two weeks before, it all would have been over and Deadspin might not have gone with its story, alleging Favre sent photos of his penis to Jets sideline reporter Jenn Sterger, a former Dallas Cowboy cheerleader.

Deadspin Editor A.J. Daulerio pushed Sterger into going public with the story she told him — in a confidence he honored for six months — saying they were close to running it and naming her, with or without her participation.

“Not trying to dick you over,” wrote Daulerio in an e-mail to Sterger, which he included in his story, “but there was no way I was going to sit on it forever, either.”

This prompted an ethical examination by no less than the Poynter Institute, one of the last bastions of journalism standards.

Not that it was necessary. Daulerio had forthrightly explained why he did it in his story — “I’m a dick” — although he might have added “with no ethics.”

Ethics are now a quaint concept in journalism, which is, in turn, another quaint concept. Now, as Martin Sheen said in “Apocalypse Now,” it’s “like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.”

On the other hand, taste notwithstanding, truth is always a defense.

Still, if you weren’t hooked in by Deadspin’s bare-midriff photo of Sterger, or the more provocative shots that bloomed on the Internet, it was enough to make you wish for the dog days of old. Slow as they were, at least Western civilization didn’t seem like it was going into the toilet.

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