Sports fans awoke on Sunday (January 4) morning to an NFL Wild Card double-header and to the sad news that veteran ESPN sportcaster and anchor Stuart Scott had died at the age of 49.
Scott had been fighting cancer since 2007, continuing his work at ESPN through the vast majority of his treatment, which included a 2012 remission.
“ESPN and everyone in the sports world have lost a true friend and a uniquely inspirational figure in Stuart Scott,” stated ESPN president John Skipper. “Who engages in mixed martial arts training in the midst of chemotherapy treatments? Who leaves a hospital procedure to return to the set? His energetic and unwavering devotion to his family and to his work while fighting the battle of his life left us in awe, and he leaves a void that can never be replaced.”
ESPN also released this tribute to Scott's legacy on “SportsCenter” and on the network as a whole.
Stuart Scott didn't make “SportsCenter,” obviously. A template was established by the earliest anchors, including Chris Berman, Bob Ley and the late Tom Mees. It was polished and perfected by Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick with The Big Show. But I think that one can easily argue that Stuart Scott's voice has been more pervasive and influential for a longer “SportsCenter”/ESPN period than anybody who came before.
Certainly much is made in the ESPN tribute video and much will be made in the media of Scott's importance as an African-American voice on the show, though he was far from the first African-American anchor. What he brought, though, was a voice honed and shaped through three decades of nascent hip-hop culture, a voice that certainly resonated with African-American viewers, but also resonated with the same suburban white kids and “SportsCenter”-binging frat boys who had also been fans of Olbermann and Patrick. Scott welcomed a new audience to “SportsCenter,” but he wouldn't have been as successful as he was if the existing audience hadn't been well and truly ready for the evolution of sportscasting language he brought to the table.
But I think that if you look at Scott's legacy on “SportsCenter,” his was a shift of tone every bit as much as a shift of vernacular. With Berman leading the way, there was never a lack of populist enthusiasm at the “SportsCenter” desk, but the erudite irony that Olbermann and Patrick brought to the table, a style no doubt influenced by David Letterman in late night, was already in the process of shifting to ironic detachment as various subsequent anchors put their spin on making the show theirs. Scott was not detached. He was passionate. He was excited. He ended sentences with vocal exclamation points. Personally, I'm not sure that “SportsCenter” could have survived an ongoing descent into sport-driven sarcasm. Scott curbed that trend and shifted the way fans talked about sports.
And this can't be said enough: The way ESPN talks about sports remains the way America talks about sports and Scott is a big part of the reason for that. Other networks have tried and are trying to break into the ESPN monopoly on both live sports broadcasting and also on the reporting of sports. Money can secure the rights necessary to put up a theoretically competitive package of sporting events, but as so many ESPN veterans have discovered when they've gone off to try to become the faces of new franchises, it's a lot harder to change people's habits when it comes to sports news. Scott and Eisen and the subsequent wave of anchors deserve a lot of credit for helping ESPN maintain its position, even as ESPN has diluted its own brand. Unlike the Olbermann/Patrick years or the Scott/Eisen years, I can't tell you who the featured “SportsCenter” anchors are today, but they're probably there because of Stuart Scott.
As Scott's long-time co-anchor Rich Eisen mentioned in his NFL Network tribute, Stuart Scott had a lot of vocal detractors and their criticisms have varying levels of validity. If you didn't like Stuart Scott because of his hip-hop patois? Well, think about what that says about you. I'll just move on. A more valid criticism people have always made is that Scott seemed like he was trying too hard. This goes back to the “tone” issue I mentioned. Olbermann and Patrick were cool and collected, without ever being dispassionate. It's not that you doubted Olbermann's effort or commitment, but except for the somewhat rare moments in which Olbermann seems ready to rip somebody's head off, he's level, he's elevated, he's elite. Scott got excited about sports in the same way I sometimes do, the same way most people sometimes do. He pushed the news on you with emotional spikes and valleys. I can see not loving that. I can also accept the “He was too invested in catch phrases and helped usher in a generation of anchors who were similar. And yes, for every “Cool as the other side of the pillow” or “Boo-yeah,” Scott had a dozen catch phrases that didn't catch. I just hope people who levy that criticism are every bit as bothered by the Kenny Maynes and Craig Kilborns, to say nothing of the countless anchors who have fallen below that level.
But I don't suppose you need to have loved what Stuart Scott brought to ESPN to appreciate and respect his legacy. The doors he opened for reporters who looked like him, but also sounded like him, are very much about race and culture, but also transcend race or culture and have gone past being merely Stuart Scott's voice to evolve the DNA of how we all talk about and respond to sport.