ESPN had a lengthy Fantasy Football special yesterday. As part of that, they cut to a sketch of an auction taking place outdoors, where Odell Beckham (and his image) were being put up for bid in front of a large group.
Our first reaction here was “well, that’s unfortunate.” As a neutral observer who was not in the weeds on writing this piece, I can immediately see how the optics are problematic. Slave auctions were part of our history here at the founding (and before the founding) of our nation. A large group of almost entirely white faces evokes a certain reaction.
That said, there is nothing to this. It’s also understandable how this happens because that was probably the last thing in the mind of those laying out this program. It was a fantasy football show! Fantasy Football Auctions are a popular sub-group of the phenomenon (I’ll have my write-ups coming soon). I’m going to be doing one soon, and several guys are going to sit around on couches and bid on names, from Odell Beckham, Jr. to Tom Brady to Joe Mixon to whoever the kicker for the Dolphins is this year.
Nevertheless, there have already been calls from familiar faces who court outrage and attention for an apology from ESPN.
Look, if we get outraged about everything, then the scale and ability to discern truly outrageous conduct, policies, and behavior get skewed. What’s happening at Charlottesville is outrageous and the forces at play deserve the focus of our attention. An unintentionally troubling image done by a network who also catches it from other segments for being too diverse or too political is a completely different matter. It simply merits a chuckle at the unintentional awkwardness of the sketch, and moving on to real matters.
If we are going to get outraged about this unintentional skit, then we should probably boycott the real NFL Combine, where old, mostly white, men observe mostly black men in tight outfits to figure out who to draft.
This reminds us of Max Bretos’ suspension after using the idiom “chink in the armor” while discussing Jeremy Lin. It was not done with malice or intent. While we should strive to be empathetic, intent should matter in our ability to achieve outrage.
Would this sketch even be an issue if the auctioneer had chosen Tom Brady as the player to auction? Of course not. It was going to be a star and maybe we have a Giants fan making the call instead of a Patriots fan. It’s unlikely there was anything racial about the choice.
The more troublesome thing here is that the crowd was overwhelmingly white and no African-American men can be seen representing a group that they are part of–fantasy football and football fans. This group appears to be a group of ESPN employees likely drawn into the scene as “extras.” The exclusion, I would highly doubt, was anything approaching intentional. ESPN probably gets too much criticism for the diversity of its on-air talent. For this limited group of ESPN’ers, that diversity did not extend when they went on air. But that’s an issue far beyond this one skit.
Let’s move on to a legitimate reason to be outraged, and the next player up for bid in this year’s auction.
ESPN has provided the following statement to The Big Lead regarding the sketch in question, via Kevin Ota, Director of Communications, Digital Media/Technology:
Auction drafts are a common part of fantasy football, and ESPN’s segments replicated an auction draft with a diverse slate of top professional football players. Without that context, we understand the optics could be portrayed as offensive, and we apologize.