By Chris Licata
VERNON, Conn. – There is always controversy when attempts at bridging the gap between entertainment and professional sports are made. Sometimes they are successful, such as Ray Allen’s performance in Spike Lee’s “He Got Game.” Other times it’s a miserable failure, such as Garth Brooks’ tryout with the New York Mets.
ESPN, a media outlet that has at times over the past few years seemed more geared towards producing “original entertainment” than quality sports coverage, took sports entertainment to a whole new level last night during their annual “ESPY Awards” show. The annual sports-Hollywood get together took place at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles and had the look of the Oscars with only Joan and Melissa Rivers missing. Hosted by world-famous, seven-time Tour de France Champion Lance Armstrong, the opening monologue of the event seemed more akin to an HBO stand up special than an awards show honoring the years best sporting achievements.
Armstrong threw caution to the wind and made a number of off-color jokes that would have been hilarious at any comedy club, yet seemed awkwardly out of place at the ESPY’s. After making a reference to giving his non-existent testicle to host the show, Armstrong also made a number of references to audience-member Jake Gyllenhaal’s role in the movie Brokeback Mountain. At one point the cyclist also made a joke about France’s soccer team testing positive for “being assholes.”
Though the homosexual reference to Gyllenhaal could certainly be considered risqué, perhaps it was his mocking of the French soccer team that seemed most off-color. Armstrong is a major celebrity in France, the people have really embraced him as a champion and though some Journalists and cycling officials have tied him to doping scandals, the people have stood by him. Even Armstrong himself stood up for France a year ago when they were making their case for hosting the 2012 Olympics.
However, last night at the ESPY’s, Armstrong’s comments just seemed like an unprovoked attack on the people of France. To criticize a European nation’s soccer team that came one crossbar shot away from winning the World Cup is never a good way to maintain a friendship with a whole country. So why did he say it?
Some could argue that Armstrong was merely ripping on the actions of France’s Zinedine Zidane, who in an ultimate “asshole” move head-butted an Italian player during the second overtime of the final match leading to his ejection. Though if that were the case, why didn’t Armstrong mention Zidane afterwards? The reason is because the joke was intended to play on popular American feelings that the French are “assholes.”
The Los Angeles Daily News was the first paper to report Armstrong’s comments after the opening monologue. According to the Daily News Armstrong was reported as stating that he didn’t think the joke was in bad taste and that he has no problem with the French public, just those who accuse him of using performance enhancing drugs.
Armstrong’s comments, while certainly not the end of the world, do throw into question the nature of the ESPN award show. In the past the boundaries between the athletes and entertainers had been clearly defined with the past hosts being Matthew Perry and Jamie Foxx. The best moments from prominent sports figures did not come in the form of witty one-liners, but inspirational speeches from the likes of the late Jim Valvano who’s “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up” quote is still replayed more than any other line from the award show’s history.
By giving a respected and revered athlete like Armstrong a joke-writer and the MC duties, ESPN may have tarnished his image. Though this is not Armstrong’s first foray into the world of entertainment (he made a very popular cameo in the 2004 film “Dodgeball”), it may be his most dangerous. Gone is the noble, silent Lance Armstrong who waded into the previously hostile waters of a foreign race and dominated in the name of the United States all the while battling prostate cancer. Unless Armstrong is careful he will fall into the trap of being another successful athlete-turned Hollywood puppet such as Dennis Rodman.