Schwartz: Epenesa’s Story? You Already Know It

July 11, 2019

Written by David Schwartz

Every sports story that can be written has been written. It’s been that way for some time. Years.

At this point in U.S. sports media, journalists plug n’ play. That means they reach deep into their bag of angles, narratives, and clichés and insert the athlete or storyline du jour, sprinkle in a dash of current social norms and expectations, and voilá, you’ve got your E:60 segment, your Sunday human-interest feature in the local sports section, your sideline reporter’s 30-second talking point.

Athletes usually fall into one of four categories:

  1. Hero – the athlete who wins the game or is most responsible for team or individual success.
  2. Goat – the athlete who loses the game or is most responsible for team or individual shortcomings.
  3. Redeemed – the athlete who overcame something, such as an injury, tragedy, or personal trauma.
  4. Effort giver – the athlete who might not be the best, or whose team might not have won, but gosh darn it, they never give up and deserve our admiration.

Then there are storylines. These tend to be more specific yet are still timeless, and they are meant to invoke either drama or the type of narrative arc one might find in a good book or film. Some examples include:

  • Is this the year Team X finally gets over the hump?
  • Coach Y and Coach Z don’t just win games, they’re great leaders.
  • Player X used to be the new kid on the block, but now they’re the seasoned veteran relying more on their smarts and experience than their aging bodies.

Some day soon, Iowa defensive end AJ Epenesa will play in the NFL, make great money, reach a lifelong dream, and determine the financial fortunes of his family. But you know what? He’s not focusing on that. He’s just focused on the coming season, and that, dear reader, is a reason to admire him.

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Why does this happen? Why do the same stories happen over and over and over, marching through the decades like a battalion of unoriginality?

Are sports journalists that uncreative? Of course not. Some are, but if you’ve followed the work of Jason Gay, Mina Kimes, Howard Bryant, Sally Jenkins, Kenny Mayne and many others you know they’re smart, funny, tenacious, and/or clever.

So then maybe it’s the fault of sports media readers, watchers, and listeners. Almost nothing new ever gets produced, yet we consume more content now than ever, happy as a lark to read and watch the same recycled schlock day after day, year after year. Where are our standards? Where’s our pride? Why don’t we expect more?

Because what we’ve got here is a matter of circumstance. Do the math:

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There are nearly 130 D-I college football programs. Each program can give up to 85 full scholarships per season. That’s about 11,000 scholarships for major college football per year. Now estimate that each program is covered by six media outlets (some have more, others less, so just go with six).

And that’s just college football. Now throw in college basketball, baseball and every other sport, pro baseball, hockey, football, basketball, minor league sports, soccer/futbol, rugby, cricket, auto racing, horse racing, Olympic sports, boxing, MMA, x-sports and everything else.

Now, keep in mind that sports have been consumed through media for at least a century and a half. So, you’ve got hundreds of thousands if not millions of athletes, thousands of media outlets, dozens of sports, plus 150 years of story angles and narratives.

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Is it any wonder that we read and watch and produce the same sports media content over and over and over? What else is there? A lot is going to be written and said about Epenesa in the coming months. We’ve heard it all before, but that won’t stop us from pretending we’re hearing or reading something insightful.

That’s why athletes take it one game at a time, it’s why the winner has the heart of a champion, it’s why winners “want it more” than losers.

At this point, it’s a dance of expectations and saturation. And yet we continue to eat it up, read a story in 2019 that could have been produced in 2003 or 1981 or 1938.

It’s also why when something new comes along, something totally original, it sticks with us. But that’s rare. Mostly, we’re content reading about the star who’s able to stay focused, even though we’ve read it so many times before. It’s not new. It’s not interesting. It’s not even compelling. It’s expected. It’s comfortable. It is what it is.

* Talk with David Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz.

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