And on Wednesday, one of ESPN's brightest nights of the year—the taping of its annual sports awards show, the Espys—was dimmed by the news that longtime "SportsCenter" anchor Dan Patrick, arguably ESPN's most cherished on-air personality, was leaving the network. ESPN still has plenty of big names on the payroll; its TV dominion is secure. But Patrick's departure is a watershed moment, not least because it epitomizes a battle for the soul of ESPN. As an anchor, Patrick struck the perfect balance between wit and gravitas; he had the funniest one-liners and he asked the toughest questions. But in recent years, networkwide, that balance has begun to tip unmistakably toward the kind of athlete-centric idol worship that seems more like the province of Us Weekly than ESPN.
Some of this is inevitable. ESPN's lucrative partnerships with the NFL, the NBA, MLB and NASCAR, among others, have put its news operation, and "SportsCenter" in particular, in a unique bind. "Imagine The New York Times owning half of the Broadway theaters whose plays it reviews. Or imagine CNN paying billions of dollars for exclusive ... rights to cover the War in Iraq," wrote ESPN's own ombudsman, Le Anne Schreiber, in a May 10 Web column titled "At ESPN, Conflict of Interest Is Business as Usual."
Remember, this is the news organization that first brought Keith Olberman to a national audience. They certainly have fallen a long way.