Steve Nash is to my left and LaDainian Tomlinson is to my right. Ten feet in front of me, Lauryn Hill is attacking the microphone with a voice partying like it is, in fact, 1999. Behind me, one of the most beautiful women in the world, Jaime Edmondson, canoodles with Evan Longoria. In the real world, this isn’t a typical Wednesday night. Of course, this isn’t the real world. It’s the ESPY Awards – where the remarkable becomes the norm and the extraordinary becomes ordinary.
I attended the 20th installment of the star-studded sports jamboree in Los Angeles as a guest of Clear Men Scalp Therapy. Over the course of three days, I was afforded the opportunity to rub elbows with some of the biggest names in the athletic and entertainment world. Oh, yeah. Kid from Kid ‘n Play was there, too.
A lot has changed since the first show in 1992. The event has slowly grown in size and budget every year into its current state. It’s ESPN’s annual night to put its best foot forward and hammer home the fact that, like it or not, they inextricably intertwined with the very fabric of sports.
A makeshift village was set up for the public to stroll through, featuring a set for live “SportsCenter” and the inevitable Tim Tebow pop-in. Giant trophy-shaped decorations brought a unique twinge of phallic influence to the plaza and the NCAA Football 13 tent was constantly filled with people who look like they play a lot of video games.
As the 100-degree midday gracefully melted into a 98-degree afternoon, the real action started. It was time for the beautiful and adroit people to arrive. "Everybody clear a path," implied many security people with goatees.
The red carpet is an animal all itself. There are simultaneously a million rules and no rules. There are official channels and official-looking people shepherding the whole process. In reality, though, it’s every media outlet trying every trick in the book to get people to stop and talk. The most common technique? Sending a knockout with, uh, let’s say, limited sports knowledge to flash a come-hither smile. I’d like to tell you that our nation’s fastest and strongest millionaires are impervious to this type of maneuver, but that would be an outright lie.
Standing next to these people, looking like the haggard man I am, put my at an obvious disadvantage. Still, some red-carpet walkers shared some thoughts with me.
“This event and ESPN in general has grown, gone worldwide,” hockey great Mike Modano said. “It’s had a tremendous impact on fans and the sporting industry. It’s become this giant spectacle and it’s great to see.”
Women’s soccer legend and current ESPN analyst Brandi Chastain echoed those sentiments.
“Like anything, there’s an evolution,” she said in the midst of all the pre-show hoopla. “Like sports, this gets bigger and bolder and faster and stronger. I think that’s what you see here. It’s louder and glitzier.”
Most questions during the afternoon were less meat-and-potatoes and more puffy and saccharine. It makes sense. Nobody wants to stop and talk about how to solve the problems in the Middle East. At the same time, the monotonous and repetitive questions almost made me feel sorry for those subjected to them. I stress the almost because I probably incurred four or five cavities from the arm candy.
The talent was absolutely incredible. Perhaps no place outside of NBA All-Star weekend or a Terry Richardson studio has a higher concentration of beautiful women. If there were an award for somehow fitting into tighter-than-form-fitting dresses, it would have been the most hotly-contested category of them all. You have to remind yourself it’s not polite to stare and, in the next breath, remind yourself that no one cares about what you’re doing and there’s virtual impunity for gawking.
Bless me, father, for I definitely sinned. I coveted my neighbor’s wife, his suit, bling, popularity, charm, athletic ability, and basically anything else you can name.
What I found out is that athletes aren’t impervious to getting caught up in the star-gazing either.
“This is a little overwhelming,” said Buffalo Bills wide receiver David Nelson, who was there with his girlfriend Kelsei Reich. “This is my first time coming and, for me, it’s about seeing all the stars and celebrities. I want to go in there and shake some hands, take some pictures myself.
“For me, it’s not so much the football players. It’s the basketball players, the baseball players, guys I never get to see in other sports. Being able to talk to Kenny Chesney and guys from the entertainment world, it’s awesome.”
While the ESPYS aren’t scrutinized fashion-wise as thoroughly as some award shows, attendees really go all out. Another perk of being a professional athlete is that you likely look good in expensive formal wear. Seriously, those guys have all the fun.
But apparently not every guy can suit up without assistance.
Singer-actress Willa Ford offered some insight on the getting-ready process she and husband Modano go through.
“I take longer to get ready, but he asks way more questions”, she said. “’What about this? What about this shirt? What do you think of these shoes? Do you like these buttons? What about this thing in my pocket and on and on. That’s what you get with an athlete, though. Their schedules and their lives are basically plotted out for them. You find there are two different types of athletes. One of them really needs someone to tell them what to do.”
When the last beautiful person had sauntered by the throngs of media jackals, it was time for the main event.
Oddly enough, the show seemed almost secondary to all of the ancillary events. A year after Seth Meyers hosted, ESPN trotted out Rob Riggle. Now, there’s nothing wrong with Riggle. He’s a capable comedian. But let’s face it: he’s not exactly an A-lister.
That said, he did an adequate job in the role. His monologue was predictable, but still funny. He poked fun of Anthony Davis’ eyebrow, Drew Brees’ denial of the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, and Jeremy Lin. A few pre-recorded sketch bits where on point, while a couple of others seemed forced. He was effective getting us to laugh at athletes, but struggled to make us laugh with them.
One interesting reality of the Nokia Theater is that there was very little separation between athletes and the general public. Sure, the distinguished guests sat much closer to the stage, but when nature called, they had to pass through the unwashed masses in order to answer.
It definitely seemed easier for some stars to press the flesh than others.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, Rob Gronkowski exceled in this department. The New England Patriots tight end and noted rager owned the red carpet with his brothers – all of whom are behemoths themselves – and father. His handler, bless his heart, was largely unsuccessful in his quest to reign in Team Gronk. The pass-catching machine seemed completely incapable of saying no to anyone. He must have posed for 1,300 pictures. To his credit, it never once looked like a chore. He always smiled, joked, and thanked the person for asking. It was pretty incredible and does nothing to tarnish his reputation of the Bro-iest Bro in all of Bro Town.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand was the unquestioned star of the show, the guy every athlete took time to meet, greet, and congratulate for his courage. It was hard not to be impressed by his inspiring speech and overall demeanor. He’s gone through more than any one person should have to go through, but has done so with aplomb.
It was a bit bizarre to be smack-dab in the middle of this weird sports star fraternity, watching them interact with each other. Throw in some completely random C-lister from the early 1990s, like, say, Biz Markie, and it bordered on surreal.
At a certain point, though, it stopped being remarkable and began to just make sense.
Every single person in this celebrity ecosystem has a place. They scratch backs to get their backs stretched. There are myriad motivations for their behaviors, but all have a common goal: to be a part of it.
The publicists who tell you their client doesn’t have time to talk to your blog, the WAG patiently holding their clutch as their date hams it up, and the hangers-on who provide extraneous muscle all have a role to play.
Larger than that, though, the ESPYS are a microcosm of the sports world. The good, bad, and ugly intertwine. A touching moment honoring Tennessee coaching legend Pat Summitt was followed by a clumsy speech. The crowd rose to its feet to support the troops, but booed lustily as the marquee award of the night – Best Team – went to the Miami Heat.
The gigantic event, which takes an obscene amount of money and planning to put on, ended awkwardly with Juwan Howard and Mike Miller mumbling a few words. There was no grand finale.
Later in the night, I spoke to a young girl who had worked as a seat-filler. She spoke with breathless excitement about how she’d gotten the gig and how much fun she’d had seeing the show.
It reminded me that this is a special night. A sports fan would be hard-pressed to get a greater collection of stars in one room.
For few minutes she talked about how much fun it all was.
Then things took a turn.
She asked if there were any athletes staying at my hotel and if they might be at the rooftop bar.
“Is that the end game here?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“Of course,” she replied. “I don’t actually like sports.”
So there you have it. The ESPY Awards. Fun for fan who loves the name on the front of the jersey and even those who like what’s inside it.
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