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Media Meltdowns

ESPN’s Paying How Much For This?

5:15 PM EST on January 9, 2024

The thing about being a relentlessly public figure is that eventually you either have to go beyond your own outer limits and risk being written off as a clown without jokes, or back away and be written off as a bore without original thoughts. That eventuality seems to be racing headlong toward Pat McAfee, ESPN's golden child for what, a year now? It is a moment when the world you have on a string snaps and hurls itself toward your house, when the money you've been given to change the nature of a staid environment becomes less an investment and more a sunk cost by the people who created the ecosystem you've been asked to nudge.

McAfee was the corporately proclaimed rogue who would deliver us from the wall of repetitive tedium found in ESPN's morning and afternoon lineups. He would make tank tops the new tie and blazer, and he would rethink sports for the people who used to think Barstool was the next wave of sports gabbing. To prove it, he would corral tinfoil-wrapped revolutionary Aaron Charles Rodgers, who would break all the rules ESPN management held sacred because, well, that's what McAfee paid him to do, right?

Rodgers, who was supposed to make McAfee necessary viewing in an increasingly unnecessary culture, already has jumped the shark, the latest example being his condemnation of the New York Jets' culture of "bullshit" that originated primarily with his own self-aggrandizing behavior. And McAfee, himself a sufficiently provocative bolshevik in his own right when left to his own devices, is letting Rodgers guide him toward that ramp on water skis. In a scenario with a shark and a jumper, it seems we can no longer tell which is which.

In Tuesday's installment, Rodgers chose to double down on McAfee's attack last week on ESPN's supervisory hatchetman Norby Williamson, by ripping Williamson's underling Mike Foss for attacking Rodgers's "dumb and factually incorrect joke" about Jimmy Kimmel's nonexistent link to Jeffrey Epstein, is in the end only regurgitation. Kimmel's contribution was to do seven minutes of material on Rodgers in his Monday night show that served mostly as a distinct break from comedy, when what actually was demanded was Kimmel at his most clever and least petulant. No such luck there, either.

Rodgers has for a few years now become the middle-aged bore at the party, trying to relitigate the pandemic as part of a persona that is supposed to come off as iconoclastic, but ends up being move-away-from-him-slowly narcissism with an expired sell-by date. McAfee, the unconvincing post-adolescent with podcasting equipment tied to Rodgers by more than just the guest fees, is in the unenviable position of turning the show he always wanted over to someone who is guiding it with laser-like aim toward a predictably dreadful end.

McAfee knew what he was signing up for when he booked the one-trick pony for regular appearances. Rodgers is a cliche-mongering gadfly who travels everywhere with a full-length mirror, because that is the extent of his vision. ESPN management cannot be embarrassed enough times in enough ways, given that it doesn't know what the kids want while it still panders shamelessly to the over-55 crowd that still has cable. It's floundering in anticipation of the slow-motion diminution of its empire, and seeking out the illusion of a younger audience that shows increasing signs of not being all that interested in what's being repurposed. A villain named Norby? What sugar-powered 8-year-old comes up with that? Wait, that one answers itself.

Then again, that's the exciting world of postmodern/pre-apocalypse overexposure. You can't be new for very long, standing still is programming death, and attempts at reinvention are often more hazardous than they seem. Entertainers usually lead with their best stuff, and every turn leads them to material that isn't as good.

In an ideal world, the voice of reason would have been McAfee, possibly changing the subject before his guest goes on for the 15th minute about Anthony Fauci, who retired a year ago. Surely the conversation won't be moderated or improved by the inflatable pool toy that is A.J. Hawk. But at ESPN the talent is never really trusted, and the McAfee-Rodgers joint will be used as proof that the talent shall never be trusted again. Indeed, the only admirable thing about the entire saga is that it's exploding into a Bellagio-level fountain of shit much faster than anyone could have imagined. They all want the last word in a conversation nobody else wants to hear.

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